According to a recent study, brain scans might reveal activity patterns that can help determine whether an individual committed certain acts or crimes "knowingly" or merely "recklessly;" in other words, without being sure of his/her involvement in a crime.
Even though this technique has a long way to go before it can be put into use in a court of law, it would be possible to use brain activity scans as evidence in the future as long as scientists come up with a technique to read brain activity.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicates that the mental state of a person at the time he or she commits a crime can have major implications.
"Imagine you are a juror in the trial of a defendant who admits to having transported a suitcase full of drugs across international borders. However, you do not know how aware she was of the presence of the drugs in that suitcase. The degree of awareness she had at the time she crossed the border will make the difference to her criminal culpability, and, in turn, to the amount of punishment she faces," the researchers wrote in the study.
For the study, scientists had 40 subjects. The neuroscientists asked the subjects to imagine a made-up scenario, and the participants would have to carry a suitcase, which might or might not be filled with contraband, through a hypothetical checkpoint.
In some cases, the participants were informed about the content of the suitcases, while in some cases they had no idea whether they were carrying contraband or not.
The researchers found that the patterns in the participants' brain activity differed significantly, depending on whether they were acting knowingly as opposed to recklessly.
For example, a part of the brain called the "anterior insula" was more active when the person knew for sure that he or she was carrying contraband, according to the study. This part of the brain has been implicated in other research that looked at risk and reward, the researchers wrote.
The scientists claimed that they were able to predict whether a person was acting knowingly or recklessly while a crime was being committed.
Although brain scans have previously been used in some criminal cases, the technique is not yet ready for use in courthouses.
The researchers, however, acknowledged that there were several limitations to the study. For example, the areas of the brain that were activated during the scans could also be linked to other, unrelated mental states — meaning brain states that have nothing to do with knowledge or recklessness, they said.
"Understanding more about the way our brains distinguish between legally relevant circumstances in the world has the potential to improve what, up until now, has been the law's guesswork about the way in which certain mental conditions might impact criminal responsibility," the researchers added.
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