Criminal activity is unlawful behaviour that often causes harm to people, property, or society. Crime is an ongoing problem that trends up or down depending on many different societal factors.
When it comes to individuals who commit crimes, it’s important to do more than just punish them for breaking the law. Making an effort to understand why someone would engage in criminal activity can help prevent future crimes, both individually and on a broader scale.
The brain plays a major role in driving behaviour of every kind. For that reason, it makes sense to think about the brain’s role in criminal activity and what we can do from a neuroscience perspective to protect society and take appropriate action in individual cases.
Here’s some of what we know so far about how the brain is involved in criminal behaviour.
How the human brain works
Our brains are extremely complex and are divided into a number of different regions. Each part of the brain is critical in our ability to control our bodies and function cognitively. We use our brains for everything from movement to decision-making.
Some parts of the brain are critically important for maintaining normal bodily functions, such as breathing, heart rate, motor function, and hormone production. Other areas of the brain are more involved with emotions and higher cognitive functions. When considering the role of the brain in criminal activity, one or more of the following areas are likely to be involved:
- Prefrontal cortex. Regulation of thoughts, emotions, and behaviour
- Amygdala. Involved in emotional processing, with an emphasis on fear and aggression
- Temporal lobe. Processing auditory information and memory
- Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Behaviour regulation and impulsivity.
Some neurological features linked to criminal activity
Anyone can be capable of committing a crime, under certain circumstances. When people are desperate, pushed to their limit, fearful, or angry, they will respond in ways that they wouldn’t in other situations.
However, research shows that some differences in the brain can be considered “biological risk factors” for criminal activity. Some people are simply more likely to commit crimes due to the way their brains develop and function. Looking into the lives of notorious criminals can shed some light on these risk factors and how they affect a person’s criminal behaviour.
Deviations in amygdala size and function are associated with psychopathic traits, aggression, and violence. Low anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) function was also associated with crime, making offenders more likely to re-offend after their release from prison.
While these attributes don’t automatically mean that someone will go on to commit crimes in the future, they are more likely to have problems with impulse control and emotional and behavioural regulation. Since these are critical areas of the brain when someone engages in criminal activity, it means that any differences in these areas can affect a person’s likelihood of committing a crime.
Cognitive decline or damage can increase criminal behaviour
Research has shown that people with neurodegenerative diseases, such as frontotemporal dementia and Huntington’s disease, have higher rates of criminal and antisocial behaviour. This suggests that when brain function declines, people are more likely to have impaired judgement, trouble processing their emotions, and reduced self-awareness, among other things. Similarly, people who suffer damage in the prefrontal cortex and other key areas of the brain can be more likely to engage in criminal behaviour.
When certain areas of the brain are damaged, our ability to reason and manage our emotions is diminished. This does not mean that everyone who experiences neurodegeneration or brain damage will start engaging in criminal activity; far from it. But it does mean that any cognitive impairment should be considered when trying to understand motives or appropriately setting consequences for criminal activity.
How we can use neuroscience to address crime
Understanding the neuroscience of crime is the first step in addressing it. The good news is studies have already shown that early interventions can help reduce criminal activity in people with biological risk factors. Identifying these risk factors and intervening before any criminal activity occurs could ultimately help reduce crime overall.
In cases where a crime has already been committed, officials in the justice system might consider the role of neuroscience in deciding how to proceed with an individual criminal case. However, it’s important for courts to proceed carefully in using neuroscience in criminal justice, as the ethics of this can be questionable.
Careful interpretation and ongoing research will be key to ethically using neuroscience in the criminal justice system. Biology doesn’t doom someone to a life of crime, but it can play a role in shaping a person’s behaviour and the decisions they make throughout their lives.
Ellen Diamond, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.