Neuroscientists can tell if you knowingly committed a crime based on brain scans

Neuroscientists around the world are trying to uncover the secrets of the brain by studying images of it. That’s no easy task — the human brain is arguably the most sophisticated thing in existence and it has proven difficult to decipher. But a team of researchers have found that brain images reveal whether someone committed a crime knowingly or recklessly. It may seem like a small distinction but it could have a significant impact in the courtroom.

The United States Model Penal Code considers criminal culpability through the lens of a suspect’s awareness and intentions. Someone who knew they were acting against the law is subject to stricter penalties than someone who didn’t. More precisely, a suspect’s actions are considered on a scale of severity that includes purposeful, knowing, reckless, and negligent.

“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,” Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech who led the study, said in a press release. “Predicated on which side of the boundary you are on between acting knowingly and recklessly, you can differentially be deprived of your freedom.”

Montague and his team scanned the brains of 40 people and used machine-learning algorithms to study the images and determine whether the participants knew they were committing crimes.

The participants were given a thought experiment, in which they had to decide whether to carry a suitcase across a border. Thy were given varying probabilities that suitcase contained illicit drugs, in order to differentiate between those who knowingly committed a crime (since the case clearly contained illegal substance) and those who accepted the risk associated with the act. By monitoring which parts of the brain were activated in each scan, the researchers were capable of determining which participants knew they were carrying drugs and which participants were simply acting recklessly.

The research, which was published last week in the journal Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates the first neurobiological evidence of the difference between knowledgeable and reckless mental states. Though the study is currently confined to the laboratory — the brain scans need to be captured as the subject is making the decision — it may someday help courtrooms make more accurate decisions on a suspect’s criminal culpability.

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