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This Is Your Brain On Crime

Brain scan
creative commons

In the future, neuroscientific evidence may be as prevalent as DNA evidence in the criminal justice system. Today on The State of Things, experts discussed the future of neuroscience and the law. Here are some highlights. 

“My brain made me do it

-Criminal defendants can use neuroscience to argue that they don’t have the capacity for intentionality. Some crimes, like the highest level of murder, legally require planning and premeditation. If a defendant’s neurobiology shows that they have difficulty planning and are more likely to act out of impulse, they might be convicted for second degree murder, which carries a less severe punishment.

“I’m just a teenage dirtbag, baby” ~ Wheatus

-Adolescents’ brains are less developed than adults’ so the law treats them as less responsible for their actions. It’s difficult to legislate exactly when a person becomes cognitively mature since it varies from person to person, but neuroscience is able to get a more individualized picture of that development.

“I’m not a racist, but…”

-Research indicates implicit biases affect decision-making processes more strongly than explicit biases. That means that the prejudices we are least aware of are the ones that may influence our decisions the most. However, simply telling a jury that they probably have implicit biases can lead to significantly more equitable outcomes.  

"We are arresting individuals who have broken no law." 

"But they will." 
~ Minority Report

-If neuroscience becomes commonplace in legal proceedings, there are no explicit constitutional protections to defend the privacy of individual thought. Current protections against self incrimination do not prohibit the use of physical evidence such as fingerprints or DNA, and brain scans could be interpreted as physical evidence.

Listen to the full episode:

Guests include Nita Farahany, professor of law, genome sciences & policy and philosophy; Ahmad Hariri, professor of psychology and neuroscience; Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, professor of practical ethics; and Scott Huettel, professor of psychology and neuroscience.

Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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