Brain Scans and Social Policy

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If prediction of anti-social behavior becomes sufficiently accurate, will society adjust by mandating treatment, monitoring, or incarceration BEFORE a crime has been committed? If a person’s behavior is largely a result of an innate, abnormal brain structure, is he morally responsible for his actions. How would our legal and moral systems adapt?

First evidence of brain abnormalities found in pathological liars

MRI brain scan the ultimate lie detector

Perhaps psychopaths could be reliably detected by observing brain function while showing images that normally evoke emotional responses. Perhaps potential child molesters could be identified based on brain responses to images of children. Or potential terrorists.


  1. And how exactly would the brain scans differ beteen a potential terrorist and, say, a potential strategic bomber pilot? Will some be sent to prison and others to Colorado Springs? Or would scans only be peformed on those not planning a government career?

  2. Gwood: ?And how exactly would the brain scans differ beteen a potential terrorist and, say, a potential strategic bomber pilot?? 
    During the brain scan the subject might be shown images of Western men, women, and children being blown-up. The brain regions that lit up might indicate whether the test subject was a potential terrorist. 
    Gwood: ?Will some be sent to prison and others to Colorado Springs?? 
    I don?t know how such technology would/should be applied. I suspect there could be major societal impact.

  3. Dollars to donuts the new technology will tell us exactly what we already know: 1) that some individuals are much more likely to commit antisocial acts than others, but that “more likely” doesn’t come close to equalling certainty and 2) these individuals “more likely” to commit antisocial acts are not quite precisely evenly distributed among all demographic groups.

  4. i think this will be completeely suppressed…i think the leaders of society- the presidents senators congressmen ceos all lie several fold more than the followers… so this will either be suppressed or debunked or used in very prcisely defined circumstances. 
    BTW I think this applies to ALL societies – inasmuch as this is a human universal – not that leaders lie .. but you get to be a leader because you are a proficient liar

  5. George Weinberg: ?”more likely” doesn’t come close to equalling certainty? 
    Yes, that is a critical point. 
    Also what is the societal tipping point? If a mother with young children knew there was a test that was over 90% accurate in predicting who would molest children, I suspect she would favor prevention. On the other hand a Catholic priest might never accept such a policy as it goes against Church doctrine. I?m not even sure prevention would be constitutional.

  6. John Nash has schizophrenia, a condition that is more strongly associated between identical twins than fraternal ones. Yet he has gone into what looks like spontaneous remission. Just as finding a brain marker for schizophrenia would not guarantee future psychosis, finding a brain marker for congenital lying would be no guarantee of future fraud. The process of maturation prevents an easy inference and preserves grounds for presumed innocence

  7. To effect any real change, one must “get past” all of this over-consideration of what is or isn’t “constitutional”. This is only one more ingenius step toward the kind of society we want! This’ll really turn up the heat on the dysgenic and their apologists/protectors. After this job’s done, we need an accurate predictor of creative giftedness, accurately foretelling who the Ph.D earners will be and giving mom’s the choice of selectively weeding out the the scrap material.

  8. I think the authors of the study are a little facile in the conclusions they draw from their study: fewer grey cells implies lack or deficit of moral sense, while more white matter indicates a greater ability to lie effectively. That could be, but it is an enormous leap in logic, far beyond the evidence they present. By the way, why didn’t they mention the two-area phenomenon in the neuroimaging of liars which has gotten a lot of press: only one area of the brain lights up (in Pet scans)when people are telling the truth, but two areas when people are lying. Is one of these areas the prefrontal cortext referenced in this article?

  9. Well, we do already have penile plethysmography to try to identify potential child molesters. It only tells whether the person is aroused by the pictures he is being shown, and not whether he actually goes about molesting anyone. No U.S. court will allow its use for evidence of guilt – but some will have the test administered after a conviction for possible use in sentencing. This does suggest something about how these techniques might be used in time. 
    The federal rules of evidence (and the state and military rules that are largely copied from them) have always been strictly *against* letting the prosecution show that the accused has a certain character trait “in order to show action in conformity therewith.” That is to say, you can’t show that the defendant has a short temper to help prove manslaughter (exception: if the defendant decides to “open the door” by bringing evidence that he’s peaceful, you can bring evidence to rebut it. Another exception: you can bring evidence to show that someone who *actually testifies* is untruthful, or has a background that suggests it). But when a defendant is convicted, a broader inquiry is permitted into his background and character – the question is no longer, “Did he do it?,” but, what kind of person is he and “What kind of sentence is appropriate?” (I’m oversimplifying hugely of course.)  
    That said, this is my view. In countries like ours, with common-law traditions (U.S., Britain, Australia, etc.), these techniques (assuming they become reliable enough) will probably be slotted in pretty neatly under the long-standing rules for character evidence: limited use during prosecution, permissive use during sentencing. I don’t know how they’d fit in civil-law countries (continental Europe, Latin America, etc.). In what’s left of the Communist world, including China, it’s not hard imagining the state picking out the “undesirables” before there’s any trial or even any crime… 
    Slightly off-topic: Minority Report was a bit weak in this regard – all they had to do was grab the criminals in the midst of the attempt, and charge them with the *attempt* to commit the crimes (with supplemental evidence easy enough to get if they waited long enough…). But no, they had to go to extremes: punish the uncommitted crime itself or abolish the whole system.

  10. what is the current false positive rate for convictions? 
    how good could a crime prediction technology possibly be?

  11. Interesting to note: 
    “The findings are in line with previous studies which showed children with autism are less capable of lying than other children. 
    “Brain neurodevelopmental studies of autism show people with the condition have more grey matter than white matter – the opposite pattern to the liars in this study.” 

  12. “Specifically, liars had a 25.7 percent increase in prefrontal white matter compared to the antisocial controls and a 22 percent increase compared to the normal controls. Liars had a 14.2 percent decrease in prefrontal gray matter compared to normal controls.  
    More white matter ? the wiring in the brain ? may provide liars with the tools necessary to master the complex art of deceit, Raine said.  
    “Lying takes a lot of effort,” he said.  
    “It’s almost mind reading. You have to be able to understand the mindset of the other person. You also have to suppress your emotions or regulate them because you don’t want to appear nervous. There’s quite a lot to do there. You’ve got to suppress the truth.  
    “Our argument is that the more networking there is in the prefrontal cortex, the more the person has an upper hand in lying. Their verbal skills are higher. They’ve almost got a natural advantage.”  
    But in normal people, it’s the gray matter ? or the brain cells connected by the white matter ? that helps keep the impulse to lie in check.”  
    “One of the scientists who worked on the study, Rugen Gur, said: “A lie is always more complicated than the truth. You think a bit more, and MRI picks that up.” 
    My earlier comments were posted a bit in haste as i hadent yet read both articles. 
    here are more 
    1. sounds like overkill – drawing more inferences than should be from the data. 
    2. using a sledgehammer to stick a thumbtack into corkboard. 
    3. truth and lies arent just either or opposites… a lot of subtlty ands complexity goes into the process. so if you take away the self serving hype there may not be much left. 
    interpreting medical/ clinical literature needs to be done with care. Just because you find a “p” that shows statistical significance doesnt mean that the authors inferences are correct! 
    And just because a journal published a paper doesnt mean it is worth the paper it is printed upon ( jason malloy are you listening- i am talking about the paper about fetuses and pain that you got so enamoured of last month)

  13. Standard estimates of false conviction rate are about 10%-15% for capital crimes, which is why Illonois declared a moratorium on execution. For other crimes, with less thorough appeals processes, the rate of false convictions must be higher. This doesn’t even count innocent people bullied into pleaing guilty, or the numerous people who are held for over a year in federal prisons prior to trial in order to extract such a plea.

  14. Humans evolved to deceive and to detect deceit. New technologies may alter that mental arms race. (Infrared images that provide clues. High-speed photography that captures small muscle movements that are characteristic of lying. Targeted magnetic field inactivation of specific brain regions so that a person loses the ability to try to deceive.) My guess is that technology will advance to the stage where intentional lying can be reliably detected. 
    Part of my interest in this topic is that I believe that advanced technology is increasingly giving individuals and small groups the ability to hurt many people. A small fraction of society is increasingly dangerous. How many psychopaths can an advanced technology society tolerate? How can this trend be reversed? 
    At the same time I see the potential for anyone unusual being labeled as dangerous and subject to ?healing?, retraining, monitoring, or restraint. My beliefs on HBD might be enough to convict me.

  15. The power that the nations of this world are gaining, thanks to ever growing knowledge of the brain, is worrisome indeed. It’s obvious that even the most unscrupulous, and abominable of acts will take place behind closed doors, even in so-called moral and humane democratic states, let alone in dictatorial regimes. 
    Access to the most intimate of details of the mind, and manipulation with the intent to gain information or sexual gratification, even of those who’re innocent*(as has happened without such tech in many imprisonment camps), is unforgivable. 
    Thankfully the unstability of the world, and the ever increasing rate of progress will lead to a new and glorious age, as the states of the world crumble, powerless to do anything about it. As new and superior intellects are brought into this world, the laws of man will be undone.

  16. Reliable “standard estimates” of false conviction rates are awfully hard to come by. Because you basically have to take a large set of trials in which (1) the prosecution thought the case was worth bringing at all; (2) the factfinders saw every fact that could lawfully be brought in, and reached a unanimous decision; and (3) the person drawing up the statistics must somehow know the decision of that jury was wrong. (Yes, there are cases where that happens; but a stastistically significant sampling of *all* cases?).  
    Over 90% of all criminal cases in the US are guilty pleas (see footnote 2 here with references: In the federal district courts in 2003, as you can see here – – once you exclude the cases that were dismissed, there were 64,894 guilty pleas; 274 nolo contendere pleas; 3,365 convicted at trial; and 991 acquited at trial.  
    To say that 10-15% (or more) of these cases are false convictions is to say that there are more false convictions than trials – which is more than a little hard to buy.  
    Under the speedy trial act of 1974 (18 U.S.C. 3161), the following time limits are imposed: from arrest of a defendant, 30 days to indictment. From indictment (or “last appearance before a judicial officer”) to trial, 70 days. From first appearance of the defendant through counsel (or from the day the defendant determines to proceed without a lawyer) to trial, 30 days (yes, there are exclusions; a delay caused by the defendant’s own pretrial motion doesn’t count against the prosecution, for example). Moreover, the prosecution doesn’t get to decide whether someone is locked up before trial at all; that is in the hands of a judge, and the standards he uses have nothing to do with “extracting confessions.”  
    In the military system, which I have more experience with, the speedy trial limit is 120 days from the date the charges are read (or the date confinement begins, whichever is first); and the standards for getting pretrial confinement at all are not particularly easy. And the defense can make plenty of hay if they get the case close to the end of that period, because if the defendant isn’t tried in time – he goes free.  
    This makes it hard to believe, without some supporting evidence, that there are “numerous” defendants being held in federal prisons for over a year for purposes of extracting confessions.

  17. I can think of a few places where this will definitely be welcomed, namely the professions where undetectable deceit is the primary skill needed: PR, advertising, elite journalism, and HR. Deceit plays a role in politics and poker, but it’s not what you’re doing 24/7. It’d be like Microsoft administering an IQ test or difficult coding problem to programming applicants. 
    The one surprise I found w/ “white matter = good liars” is that women typically dominate PR, advertising, and other deceit-based industries, but women have more *gray* matter than men, not white matter. I should look into it, but I’ve always found women to be better at drawing out a fake social smile, whereas men have more difficulty hiding their true feelings. Guess that means it’s time to rummage through the archives for studies on sex differences in ability to deceive…

  18. Agnostic, men have more gray, women have more white.  
    I don’t see the need for this brain physiology to help with PR and advertising since the people in those industries aren’t usually lying in real time when they’re creating their false concoctions. So there?s no need to hide emotions etc.  
    I can see it being helpful for politicians and poker players though.

  19. Part of my interest in this topic is that I believe that advanced technology is increasingly giving individuals and small groups the ability to hurt many people. A small fraction of society is increasingly dangerous. How many psychopaths can an advanced technology society tolerate? How can this trend be reversed? 
    I could not agree more. 
    I’m not aware of a better solution to this problem than something like the Transparent Society advocated by David Brin. If mobile cameras are everywhere, the chance that somebody catches you in the middle of your doomsday plot becomes reasonably high. On the other hand, David D. Friedman points out that the complete loss of privacy sets us back at least several centuries socially. So we’d certainly like to see a better solution, but does one exist?

  20. Joseph W., thanks for the excellent comments.

  21. “men have more gray, women have more white” 
    No, it’s as I said –

  22. My fault. Men have more gray matter linked with intellectual functioning, and women hadve more white matter linked with intellectual functioning. However overall women have more white matter.

  23. “For other crimes, with less thorough appeals processes, the rate of false convictions must be higher. This doesn’t even count innocent people bullied into pleaing guilty, or the numerous people who are held for over a year in federal prisons prior to trial in order to extract such a plea.” 
    Maybe some crimes bring out the bully prosecutors, but I was enlightened to read a pov not often heard: in most situations, questioning cops/detectives don’t care enough to bully anybody, the consequences are too high. I read a v. unusual article in a law journal about this, i.e. the silliness of thinking that police/narcs really care that much if, for example, (I am taking it right from the page) drug dealer Stinky kills drug dealer Pinky in a back alley. Nobody cares enough to bully the suspect, what with suing, criminal rights, and what normal people, even cops, feel is worth caring about.