HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Brain and Crime and Punishment

The National Law Journal reports on new studies that allegedly demonstrate how individuals sitting on juries make decisions about criminal culpability.  The story states,

Brain_witelson Researchers from Vanderbilt University used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to chart brain activity as subjects were asked to determine issues of guilt, innocence and punishment in a range of circumstances. It was the first time researchers have actually watched the brain at work as people made legal decisions, said Owen Jones, a professor of law and biology at Vanderbilt and one of the study's authors. The study is released in this month's issue of the journal, Neuron.

The research showed that different parts of the brain were triggered when subjects were asked to determine guilt or innocence, as opposed to when they were asked to determine a level of punishment. The analytical part of the brain — called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — was active when subjects were asked to decide whether or not people deserved to be punished. But the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions was triggered when people were asked to decide the level of punishment deserved in the scenarios.

"One of the major findings is that the decision to punish versus how much to punish may be determined by different brain functions," said René Marois, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt who worked with Jones on the study. Marois cautioned that the research doesn't necessarily mean that emotions drive decisions on punishment, but they do "raise the possibility that emotional responses to criminal acts may represent a gauge for assessing deserved punishment.". . .

Owens said that this research alone isn't going to transform the justice system as we know it, but it has highlighted areas where further study is needed to help identify what role emotions play in decisions on crime and punishment.  Although monitoring brain activity on an MRI machine can tell researchers which areas of the brain are responding, it won't provide a deeper understanding of why people make certain punishment decisions, he said.

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