In a new study, researchers scanned the brains of people as they were deciding whether someone should be punished for a crime, and what that punishment should be. It turns out that regions of the brain associated with rational thoughts and also emotion light up during the process. A team of law and neuroscience researchers from Vanderbilt University conducted the study. They hope to shed light on how complex legal decisions are made. Eventually, the line of research might also help determine whether judges and other arbitrators come up with judgements using the same mental processes as the rest of us. From Science News:
“Our judicial system based on third-party punishment is usually seen as cold and detached as opposed to … punishment by the victim of a crime,” Marois says. The new study shows that emotions play a part in impartial judgment too.br>"In the brain, justice is served from many parts"
Scientists have used functional MRI, or fMRI, before to scan the brains of people who are trying to decide whether to retaliate against someone who has cheated them in an economic game. But the new study is the first to examine which parts of the brain are active when an impartial third party makes decisions about guilt and punishment...
The amount of activity in (brain) areas involved in determining responsibility and whether to punish did not correlate to severity of punishment. Instead, harsher penalties were associated with increased activity in the amygdala and other parts of the brain involved in processing emotion. The degree of punishment matched the level of activity in the amygdala...
That doesn’t mean people make punishment decisions based on emotion, Jones says. “The causal arrow could run in the other direction – having decided to punish someone severely could cause an emotional response.”
David Pescovitz is Boing Boing's co-editor/managing partner. He's also a research director at Institute for the Future. On Instagram, he's @pesco.