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Brain Science’s Day in Court

…Writing in the journal Science, Lisa Aspinwall and colleagues at the University of Utah examined the effects of neurobiological knowledge on sentencing decisions of judges. In the study, 181 judges were told about a hypothetical case (based on fact) involving a man convicted of an appalling violent crime; the judges were asked to decide on a prison term for him.

The information they were given came in two versions. One group of judges was told that the man had been diagnosed by a variety of experts as an incurable “psychopath” — a psychiatric label describing a certain kind of predator who has a reptilian, remorseless indifference to the suffering of others. The second group was given that same information plus information about what specifically scientists had found when they studied the man’s brain.

The brain studies turned up two aberrant things in the hypothetical criminal: “atypical function” of a brain region called the amygdala, and abnormally low activity of a brain enzyme called MAO-alpha. This wasn’t just make-believe science. Both abnormalities have been implicated by neuroscientists as playing a role in aggression, and both have been cited in court during criminal trials (although at this point the science isn’t remotely advanced enough to accurately predict violent behavior from examining amygdaloid function or MAO-alpha activity).

Introducing neurological information like this could potentially generate two very different subtexts. The first one is tailor-made for a prosecutor: “The guy’s brain is broken and no one can repair it, which means he is a continued threat and must be isolated from society.” The other is defense-friendly: “The guy’s brain is broken; how can you hold him criminally responsible for behavior he cannot control?”…

Source: Los Angeles Times, Oct. 1, 2012. By Robert M. Sapolsky.

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[See the Science paper here.]