10 December 2008

Scanning The Brains of Judge and Jury

Assessing the guilt and punishment of persons accused of a crime can be a complex cognitive process, involving multiple areas of the brain. We may soon find the jury selection process involves real-time brain scanning. This research may also help in the development of a silicon jury, judge, or arbitrator.
Jones, Marois and their colleagues recruited volunteers who had not been victims of a crime or who were not close to crime victims. The researchers placed the volunteers in an fMRI scanner and measured brain activity while volunteers read a series of scenarios and decided whether the protagonist, in all cases a man named John, deserved to be punished for what he did and, if so, how severely. Harm to the victims of John’s hypothetical crimes ranged from petty theft to rape and murder. In some of the scenarios John deliberately carried out the crimes, while other scenes showed mitigating circumstances, such as mental illness, accidents or duress that could be perceived as diminishing John’s responsibility for the crime. The volunteers also read scenarios in which no crime was committed.

Activity in a part of the brain called the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex increased when volunteers decided John deserved punishment. The activity was also higher in that part of the brain when volunteers read scenarios in which John was responsible for the crime than when they read of mitigating circumstances reducing his responsibility. The right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the same part of the brain that becomes active in the economic game, when people decide to reject an unfair economic deal as a way to punish a partner. This brain area is thought to be involved in cognitive and impulse control.

Another part of the brain called the anterior intraparietal sulcus also became more active when assigning responsibility, while the temporo-parietal junction, a part of the brain linked to taking another person’s perspective, was more active for the scenarios where John’s responsibility was less.

But the amount of activity in areas involved in determining responsibility and whether to punish did not correlate to severity of punishment. Instead, harsher penalties were associated with increased activity in the amygdala and other parts of the brain involved in processing emotion. The degree of punishment matched the level of activity in the amygdala. _ScienceNews
The old saw that states that "a leftist is just a rightist who hasn't been mugged yet" may indeed have some basis in neurological fact. Many persons who have been victims of crime -- whether violent crime or significant property crime -- have likely undergone long-term neurological modification as a result of the crime. Such "post-victim" brains may very well be more likely to "throw the book" at criminal defendants, if anything about the story of a crime lights up the individual's amygdala.

Jury selection consultants specialise in judging a potential jurist's reaction to the presentation of evidence in advance, from his answers to questions and from his body language. Advanced computer systems of the future that participate in the adjudication of criminal cases may be a bit more difficult to anticipate.

The use of advanced brain scanning on the suspect, to ascertain his guilt, is likely to become common practise at some time in the future. We may have to terminate with extreme prejudice a large number of trial lawyers before that can be done, but eventually more reliable ways of assessing guilt and innocence will be devised.

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