Dealing with guilt and punishment is a part of civilized life. In America, the jury system determines the guilt of the accused after seeing all the evidence. After the jury decides, a judge will determine the appropriate punishment for the crime.

It turns out that the American justice system is a metaphorical way of doling out punishments. Research at Vanderbilt University has found that the processes used to assess guilt and punishment happen in different parts of your brain. This is interesting because the research suggests that one can change, and not just affect, another.

Essentially, one part of your brain might believe a person is without guilt, but another may still want to punish them. These two parts may be mutually exclusive. However, both parts need to be balanced in order for justice to be carried out in a fair way.

The report is called From Blame to Punishment: Disrupting Prefrontal Cortex Activity Reveals Norm Enforcement Mechanisms. In the study, the researchers explain that they used rTMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) on a specific area of the brain to alter the activity using a cell phone booster. The area of the brain manipulated by the scientists is known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The experiment included 66 volunteers. The volunteers were given scenarios of crimes that ranged from property destruction to death. The group was also told how responsible the suspect was for the crime.

Then, 33 people were given active rTMS while the other half were given a placebo. The subjects then had to decide what punishment to enforce on the criminals in the scenarios. These scenarios ranged from threats to home security, as well as assaults committed by the felons.

The results saw that those who had their brains manipulated with rTMS chose smaller, less-impactful punishments. This was even true for suspects that were fully responsible for the crimes in the scenarios.

In the cases where the accused was completely guilty but only committed a small crime, many of the subjects chose to award only small punishments.

The results of the study suggested that the disruption to this area of the brain changed how the subjects made their decisions. This was despite the fact that the information did not change.

According to this research, deciding suitable punishment requires that the two different parts of the brain work in tandem to find a balance. In the study, the rTMS upset this balance and interfered with deciding punishments.

Previous research has suggested that the part of the brain reviewed in this study is used primarily in simple tasks. It also plays a role in memory and behavior. Researchers now believe that it is an important part of complex decision making.

This research has important implications for the increasing prevalence of neuroscience in the criminal justice system. Understanding how the brain makes decisions about guilt and punishment may eventually help the court system ensure that better decisions are made.

This research, in combination with other advances in brain science, like understanding criminal behavior, can help ensure that the appropriate punishments are delivered to relevant guilty parties.

A better understanding of how guilt and punishment are decided will be especially important in the field of juvenile crimes. Understanding how punishments are decided for juvenile crime will hopefully help create a fairer system of punishment for youth.

For example, recent research has suggested that youth are more likely to commit worse crimes when they are a part of a group. Younger brains respond more to rewards in groups than they do alone. However, current punishments for gang crimes are harsher than punishments for crimes committed alone. This is in direct opposition to scientific evidence.

Assessing blameworthiness and delegating punishment are distinct cognitive processes. Hence, understanding the effect of these processes on decision making is important. If the court system can recognize that the processes in decision making are as complex as the criminal brain itself, it can work to create systems to keep these processes in check.

Although it’s impossible to know for sure, some estimates suggest that between 2.3% and 5% of American prisoners are innocent of the crimes they were convicted of. Using neuroscience research to make sure better decisions are made can help keep innocent people out of jail.

Featured photo credit: David Ohmer via flickr.com

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