Good Thinking

Criminal Minds: Brain scans spot the difference between intent and recklessness

Brain scans could help scientists and lawyers determine a suspect's criminal intent
Brain scans could help scientists and lawyers determine a suspect's criminal intent
View 4 Images
A research team, led by Read Montague, found that brain scans can spot the difference between whether a person is knowingly or recklessly committing a crime
1/4
A research team, led by Read Montague, found that brain scans can spot the difference between whether a person is knowingly or recklessly committing a crime
Brain scans could help scientists and lawyers determine a suspect's criminal intent
2/4
Brain scans could help scientists and lawyers determine a suspect's criminal intent
A research team, led by Read Montague, found that brain scans can spot the difference between whether a person is knowingly or recklessly committing a crime
3/4
A research team, led by Read Montague, found that brain scans can spot the difference between whether a person is knowingly or recklessly committing a crime
Brain scans could help scientists and lawyers determine a suspect's criminal intent
4/4
Brain scans could help scientists and lawyers determine a suspect's criminal intent

In the US Model Penal Code, a suspect's state of mind while committing a crime can drastically affect the punishment they receive. Specifically, someone who knew that what they were doing was wrong will face harsher penalties than someone who was acting recklessly or negligently. The problem is that it can be hard to know for sure where that line is. In a move that could help clear things up, neuroscientists from Virginia Tech have found that brain imaging techniques can tell the difference, which may help inform future law.

First developed in the early 1960s, the Model Penal Code divides a person's culpability for a criminal act into four mental states: purposely, knowingly, recklessly and negligently. If someone sets out to commit a crime, they're said to do so "purposely," which carries the strictest punishment. "Knowingly" means the person understood they were breaking the law but performed the act anyway, although it wasn't their explicit intention. A reasonable person who disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk is said to be acting "recklessly," while someone who was merely acting "negligently" wasn't aware of a risk or law, even if they should have been.

The line between knowledge and recklessness is arguably the most important. Since it hinges on whether a person intended to commit a crime or not, it's the largest gap in the severity of the punishment, and can mean the difference between murder and manslaughter.

"People can commit exactly the same crime in all of its elements and circumstances, and depending on their mental states, the difference could be one would go to jail for 14 years and the other would get probation," says Read Montague, lead researcher on the study. "Predicated on which side of the boundary you are on between acting knowingly and recklessly, you can differentially be deprived of your freedom."

A research team, led by Read Montague, found that brain scans can spot the difference between whether a person is knowingly or recklessly committing a crime
A research team, led by Read Montague, found that brain scans can spot the difference between whether a person is knowingly or recklessly committing a crime

To study whether a visible difference between these two states can be detected in the brain, the Virginia Tech team tested 40 people with a hypothetical scenario of drug smuggling. While inside an fMRI machine, participants were asked to pick a suitcase from a group of between one and five cases, one of which contained "contraband," and decide whether they would carry it across the border, knowing a certain likelihood that the case would be searched.

If given only one suitcase, the participant would know for certain that it contained contraband, but the more cases they had to choose from, the less likely it was that theirs had drugs inside. That gives the researchers a sliding scale to spot the difference between someone who is knowingly breaking the law and someone who is recklessly disregarding a known risk.

Using machine learning algorithms to analyze the resulting brain scans, the results indicated that the brain lights up differently in people who are knowingly committing a crime, versus those who are merely accepting the risk. While it's an interesting finding, and could potentially inform how guilt is determined, the researchers are careful to point out that it's still early days for the so-called science of "neurolaw" and the technology is far from ready to be put to work in determining a real person's future freedom.

"In principle, we are showing these brain states can be detected when the activity is taking place," says Montague. "Given that, we can start asking questions like, which neural circuits are engaged by this? What does the distribution look like across 4,000 people instead of 40 people? Are there conditions of either development, states of mind, use of pharmacological substances, or incurred injuries that impinge on these networks in ways that would inform the punishment?"

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Montague discusses the work in the video below. (Video courtesy of Virginia Tech)

Source: Virginia Tech

Study: brain imagery shows difference between knowing or reckless behavior in criminal acts

4 comments
Jose Gros
During the 80s, FAA was concerned about finding a way to predict which and when a pilot could enter a manic phase, perhaps SPECT could be used for this, as well as Fourier transform and other ways of analyzing brain electrical activity, but functional NMR is advancing really fast, and very good results could be expected. In brain anatomy changes, it's always difficult ascertaining what is cause, what is effect, and what is just 'innocent bystander', not talking about: 'connectiome', harder to watch.
Vikas Vimal
Somebody should invent the lightweight pre-crime (fMRI) helmet.
Observer101
Junk science. If a person "purposefully" commits a crime and gets 14 years, so be it. If a person commits the same crime "negligently", they SHOULD GET 14 years. Why you say? Because they are obviously STUPID and need 14 years of "education". if they repeat the crime, they get 20 years because they obviously didn't learn the lesson!
guzmanchinky
fMRI should be used to discover if people are lying asap. I know a lot of research is going into this, but the current system we have to determine guilt or intent is ridiculous in how inaccurate it is...