The fate of a suspected criminal rests on the judge and jury who decide whether a crime was committed intentionally or recklessly. Although we can't get inside the mind of the suspect at the time of the crime, there's a technique that could solve the question of criminal intent. Researchers at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute have found brain scans can spot differences in the state of mind between those who intended to commit a crime, and those who didn't.

"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," said Read Montague, a Virginia Tech Carilion Vernon Mountcastle Research Professor, and director of the research institute's Human Neuroimaging Laboratory, in a statement.

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Montague and his colleagues believe brain scans can be utilized as neurobiological evidence to detect the difference between knowledge and recklessness.

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy, brain scans were conducted on 40 people while scientists manipulated them to commit a crime knowingly or out of carelessness. For example, the researchers changed the probability a participant would be given a suitcase with "valuable content."

In one experiment, a participant was presented with five suitcases, where only one contained contraband. They weren't told which suitcase contained the contraband, but the participant was made aware of the risk; they would be careless if they took one of the suitcases through a checkpoint. In another experiment, a participant was presented with just one suitcase where they knew it would contain contraband.

The researchers noted significant brain differences between the two types of criminals. The anterior insula — involved in emotional awareness, or the conscious experience of emotions — was active when the criminal knew he or she was carrying contraband. Afterward, a machine-learning algorithm closely monitored these patterns and gave a fairly accurate prediction of the mental state of the participants who committed the crime, based on brain scan results.

The study provides a "proof of principle that brain imaging can determine, with high accuracy, on which side of a legally defined boundary a person's mental state lies," wrote the researchers.

However, Montague and his colleagues do not suggest assessing a suspect's mental state should be reduced to analyzing brain data. Their technique is a proof of concept, but not yet a usable tool for the courtroom. Moreover, it's not known whether areas of the brain activated during the scans could be linked to other, unrelated mental states that have nothing to do with knowledge or recklessness.

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These findings warrant further research where scientists could test whether a person's mental state when they committed a crime could be recreated via images from the crime scene.

Previous research goes further and explores whether criminals possess brain differences from the rest of the population. For example, people with antisocial disorder — a condition found in many convicted criminals — have no regard for right and wrong. A 2009 study compared psychopaths — people with antisocial personality disorder — to non-psychopaths, and found several brain differences.

Psychopaths had more deformations in the amygdala; thinning of the outer layer of this region, known as the cortex; and an 18 percent volume reduction. The amygdala is the seat of emotion, and psychopaths lack empathy, remorse, and guilt.

In other words, people convicted of crimes tend to show brain differences from the rest of the population. This knowledge combined with brain scans of suspected criminals may help determine whether a suspected criminal is truly aware of their wrongdoing, or oblivious to it, and the consequences for their actions.

In the end, many people believe a criminal who committed an act recklessly deserves a lesser punishment than one who knew what he was doing.

Source: Vilaresa I, Wesley MJ, Ahn WY et al. Predicting the knowledge–recklessness distinction in the human brain. PNAS. 2017.

See Also:

Psychopaths’ Brain Patterns Lack Means for Empathy, Reveals Neuroimaging Study

Scientists Say Violent Crime is Associated With Brain Injuries Not Epilepsy