May’s status as Mental Health Awareness Month affords the optimal segue into the emerging field of neurolaw, in particular its branch of neuroscience which seeks to understand the links between brain abnormalities and criminal behavior.
Early use of neuroscience in the courtroom focused on lessening punishment for dangerous offenders. Use of neuroscientific evidence in the legal system has expanded beyond understanding the minds of criminals to examining the same of jurors and judges.
Murderous and violent behavior is thought to result, in part, from brain abnormalities. Psychopaths manifest differences in brain biology from an early age; these differences can trigger violent behavior. Several studies have documented volume reductions in brain structures of psychopaths in selected areas of the brain. Also, the amygdala is less activated in psychopaths when they contemplate moral dilemmas.
Far less attention has been directed at understanding the brain functions of white-collar criminals partly because white-collar criminals do not command the kind of intense fascination that, for example, serial killers do. In a recent study designed to test differences between white-collar criminals and those who do not commit these crimes, Dr. Adrian Raine, criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered structural differences between the brains of white-collar criminals and non criminals. These discrepancies offer significant advantages to them in perpetrating criminal offenses.
White-collar criminals’ psychological tests showed that they were better at making decisions in the kind of “higher executive” brain functions associated with being good at business. White-collar criminals had more grey matter than a comparable group of non criminals.
Superior intellect is not enough, however, to explain the differences between the two groups. Dr. Raine concludes that only fifty percent of behavior is under genetic control. A complex cocktail of biochemical reactions, genetic, and environmental factors also contribute to the deviant behavior.
Frank S. Perri, J.D. and Terrance G. Lichtenwald, Ph.D. are working to educate the public about the subgroup of white-collar criminals, dubbed red collar criminals, that resort to violence to conceal their frauds. “White-collar criminals thrive on being able to avoid detection in order to carry out their fraud schemes; they have the ability, like a chameleon, to adapt to a given environment.” A certain proportion of these white-collar criminals (roughly 24.5%), when investigated and/or discovered resort to violence.
The journey to understand the foundation for moral behavior within an individual is in its infancy. One thing is clear though. Healthy neural systems are a necessary ingredient to moral judgment.
Within a courtroom, whether an individual possesses the required neural systems and whether they are functioning properly is of import.