A new study has found that electrical brain stimulation could reduce the likelihood of offending, which researchers hope may help to subdue the violent impulses of psychopaths and other offenders in the lead up to their release into the community.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Nanyang Technological recruited 86 adult participants. Half of them were given 20 minutes of non-invasive brain stimulation and half were not.
The participants were then asked to read two hypothetical scenarios, one about a man smashing a glass over a person’s head for chatting up his girlfriend and the second about intimate foreplay leading to sexual assault.
The participants were then asked if they were likely to react like the criminal protagonist in the given scenarios. Those in the group who had the electrical stimulation were found to be 47% and 70% less likely to relate to the hypothetical offender.
The link between brain chemistry and offending has a controversial history.
In bygone days, violent offenders and mentally ill persons were often administered highly invasive frontal lobotomies which altered their personalities and were not medically effective.
In the present study, researchers stimulated the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the top, front area of the brain – which is an area associated with antisocial behaviour.
Psychologist Adrian Raine based the study on the hypothesis that reliability to criminal wrongdoing is at least partially caused by a lack of activity in these areas of the brain.
The researchers stimulated these parts of the brain, which seemed to have improved pro-social cognition and empathy with victims in the hypothetical scenarios.
Sentencing and treatment implications
Professor Raine believes brain stimulation could have longer-term implications on the criminal mind.
Considering that the 20-minute sessions had an immediate and significant effect, Raine asked: “What if we had more sessions? What if we did it three times a week for a month”..
While acknowledging a need for further research, Professor Raine saw potential in the context of both first-time offenders and violent psychopaths in the lead-up to their release from custody.
Forensic psychiatrist Delaney Smith welcomed the study as a possible new way to treat violent criminals.
“Right now we’re limited in dealing with aggression and don’t have very good interventions — just talk therapy, off-label medications,” she remarked. “So anything we can add to the armamentarium to counter future acts of violence, the better.”
Link between brain and behaviour
There has been significant research in recent times about the link between brain chemistry and criminal wrongdoing.
Roy Hamilton, a neurologist and senior author of the study, believes that “the secret to holding less violence in your heart is to have a properly stimulated mind.”
A number of studies have looked into the differences between the brains of regular members of the community and those with acute antisocial personality disorder, or psychopathy. While psychopaths are estimated to make up just 1% of the population, they are believed to comprise 20% of prison inmates.
Brain scans have found that psychopaths have, on average, much lower volume and activity in the brain’s frontal lobe, specifically the middle and orbital frontal gyrus, as well as the amygdala.
These areas are generally associated with emotional control, influencing the production of empathy, remorse and guilt, as well as regulating our impulses and judgment.
It is hoped a program of stimulating these areas could help subdue criminal impulses in such persons.
Thought crime dystopia
The authors believe the link between neuroscience and criminality is very real.
They nevertheless acknowledge the issue needs to be approached carefully due to the danger of excessive interference with areas of the brain that make people who they are.
Professor Raine argues that brain scanning is a relatively accurate way of determining a person’s predisposition towards violent. He sees benefits in the introduction of mandatory brain scanning of 18-year-olds, and the referral of those who are assessed as having a predisposition towards crime to therapeutic programs.
The suggestion has civil libertarians up in arms, due to concerns the information could be used by both government and the private sector to discriminate against those who are assessed as having such tendencies, despite the fact they have not acted upon them. There are also questions about whether such tests are in fact accurate, given how little we know about the human brain and why some people act antisocially while others do not.
It seems the professor believes the potential benefits of such scanning outweigh the dangers.