Brain Scans can Distinguish between Criminal Intent and Reckless Behaviour

Making judgement calls regarding the motivation behind criminal activity is a common practice that often has major implications on the type of punishment someone receives. If the defendant manages to prove that her actions were a result of reckless behaviour (and lacking in criminal intent), the sentence is generally reduced to a minimum.

Brain images showing different distributions of neural activity in people committing a crime knowingly and those simply taking a risk. Image courtesy of PNAS.

Common as they are, such considerations are a matter of interpretation and therefore subject to the ever-present “human element”. Absent a more scientifically grounded basis for gauging a person’s state of mind, errors (intentional and otherwise) are inevitable.

At least for now, that is – a new paper out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documents the very first successful attempt at peeking behind the veil of human motivation.

In the study, 40 volunteers took part in a computerised simulation of criminal activity where they had to carry suitcases across a border. In some cases, the suitcases were known to hold drugs, while in others the contents inside were left more ambiguous.

Later, the researchers were able to pick out which of the volunteers broke the law knowingly, and which ones did so by simply taking a risk. This was accomplished by implementing an artificial intelligence technique called “machine learning” to sift through the brain imaging data collected during the simulation.

These findings raise the possibility that at least some of the concepts we use to make sense of intentional states (which, taken collectively, constitute what is called “folk psychology”) might  actually have a degree of validity at the level of the brain. In other words, the intention to commit a crime, as opposed to the act itself, might turn out to be an identifiable neurological state, rather than a mere cultural artefact.

Before we begin celebrating (or worrying about) the coming of “precogs” (as seen in the box office hit Minority Report), a great deal of replication and refinement of methodology is in order.

“You’re not going to do an experiment on someone accused of something and reconstruct a mental state last August and decide they were reckless instead of knowing,” said study lead author Read Montague. “But it’s a starting point for taking these sorts of things seriously and asking in what sense are these reasonable boundaries?”

The study also failed to present an explanation of the causal role of the different brain states in determining people’s behaviour – a potential avenue for further study. As a proof-of-concept, though, I’d say file it under “fascinating”.

Sources: study abstract,

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