Researchers at Vanderbilt University are completing first-of-its-kind research by using magnetic resonance imaging technology to see what happens when the brain thinks about crime.
Vanderbilt professor Owen Jones, one of the nation’s few professors of law and biology, worked with associate professor of psychology and neuroscience René Marois to scan the brains of participants with a highly sensitive technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI. Their goal was to see which parts of the brain were activated when a person was asked to make a decision on crime and punishment.
FMRI looks at parts of the brain that are more active when a person does a specific task or has a specific thought. The brain needs oxygen to work, so when a person uses a different part of his or her brain to make a decision, “we can ‘see’ where the oxygen is going,” said Marois.
“We’re studying what is going on in someone’s brain when they’re thinking about how someone should be punished and indeed whether or not they should be punished,” said Jones. “This enables us to get a window into the choices that jurors or potential jurors may make and potentially into the ways that judges reason and decide.”
During the study, the person inside the brain scanner was told to read a story on a computer screen about a suspect committing a crime. With every scenario that appeared, the subject decided how severely to punish the criminal, on a scale of one to nine.
Sometimes there would be extenuating circumstances or a background story on why the person committed the crime. Were they forced? Did they feel threatened? Were they mentally ill?
“We’re looking for the ways in which people reason about the differences in the scenarios,” said Jones.
Could a brain scan ultimately see if someone is racist, sexist or biased in some way? Jones and Marois think it is unlikely scientists will be able to see bias, with absolute certainty, just by looking at a brain scan. But they said this research could open the door to understanding the biology behind temptation and bias. “It is something we would like to investigate,” said Jones.
The researchers said the goal of law is to inspire positive changes in human behavior. By bringing in science, they can help see how people make decisions to determine if laws may ultimately need to be altered.
“The law makes a lot of assumptions about how and why people behave the way they do,” said Jones. “With this research, we can start to study those behaviors across the skull, with non-invasive technologies, to actually investigate what’s going on in the brain.”
“We’re examining to what extent our judicial system matches our human nature,” added Marois. “That means understanding better through psychological experiments and through neuro-imaging experiments what human nature is.”
Marois and Jones have completed the experimental phase of their initial research. They are now analyzing the results of the data collected.
See interviews from Jones and Marois and video of their experiment on www.vanderbilt.edu/news.