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What is Neurocriminology?

By Madii Hussain

The vast breadth of criminology expands over many sub-disciplines. Neurocriminology is a sub-discipline of criminology involving the integration of neuroscience, biology and criminology. The main focus of this sub-discipline is to investigate how crime can be prevented through examining the genetic makeup and brain development of people involved in violence and other crimes. Furthermore, neurocriminology provides us with interdisciplinary opportunities whereby biological, criminological and psychological research come together into one discipline.

The field of neurocriminology emerged when brain imaging made it possible for researchers to study the minds of violent criminals in comparison to the brain imaging of ‘normal’ people. Dr Adrian Raine is a leading academic in this field. He was the first person to conduct a brain imaging study on murderers and has since continued to study the brains of violent criminals and psychopaths. His research convinced him that while violent behaviour has a social and environmental element, there is also a biological element and explanation.

As the Buddha is reported to have said,

It is the man’s own mind, not his enemy

or foe, that lures him to evil ways”.

Controversies and moral/ethical dilemmas are bound to occur within this sub-discipline. Science and technology are constantly developing and rediscovering itself. The central question that neurocriminology poses to us is to what extent is an individual responsible for their actions? We cannot scan every brain in the world, so there is bound to be a serial killer on the loose, as we go about our lives. However, by knowing that individuals with a reduced volume of amygdala, are 4x more likely to commit a violent act in the next 3 years, does this change things? could we have prevented the making of a serial killer? The responsibility automatically shifts from the perpetrator’s acts to the compulsions created by the deficits in the brain. Perpetrators will have an additional defence in the form of neuroscience. So, do we lock them away and throw the key? Or do we flick the switch on the electric chair?

Neurocriminology puts the biological factors into perspective rather than the social and environmental factors resulting in criminal behaviour. It is easy to associate criminals with their previous history or upbringing. However, analysing their brain activity can provide an explanation for the social, environmental and biological factors. Neuroscience is not the only explanation to the causes of criminal behaviour; social environments, such as neglect, child abuse, social interactions and bad neighbourhoods, are also critical to understand, because they can impair the brain and lead people to crime and violence. There isn’t one cause to crime because all our minds and bodies work differently. Ultimately, we make the decision to harm someone and so we can also make the decision to not harm someone.

We now have the power to delve into the mind and urges of a violent criminal. At the core of this sub-discipline, advances in technology have made it possible to monitor brain activity. Personally, I take much interest in this sub-discipline because it has huge potential to positively disrupt the world of serious crime. Advances in brain technology can allow us to track brain development from early ages to adulthood. Therefore, deficits in the cerebral cortex can be picked up through low heart rates, birth complications, poor frontal lobe functioning and genotypes. Essentially, we can predict within a cohort, who are the ones that may resort to criminal behaviour before they are even exposed to these behaviours. As a result, uncovering the biological pieces of the jigsaw alongside the social and environmental ones, gives criminology a whole new dimension.

The pros definitely outweigh the cons in this sub-discipline. We can heavily reduce the number of lives being lost, simply by using brain technology. We can also accurately predict whether someone is likely to become involved in criminal behaviour or reoffend in the future. Neurocriminology is an emerging sub-discipline that will benefit us in the long-term with increased technological developments and education, alongside criminology. Moreover, while criminology is the initial short-term development in finding and identifying patterns of criminal behaviours, neurocriminology can enhance these understandings by using neuroscience and brain technology to complete both sides of the coin.

Criminology has explored and provided us with social and environmental explanations to the causes of crime. Neurocriminology will provide us with the biological explanations to the causes of crime. When the brakes of a car malfunction, the car gets out of control. Similarly, when there are deficits in parts of the brain, people can also get out of control.

By no means does the combination of science and technology, provide us with a perfect explanation to the causes of crime. However, we are one step closer to preventing crimes before they have a chance to occur, simply by examining the biological structures of the human anatomy.


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