By Richard Althouse, Ph.D.


Neuropolitics, neurolaw, genopolitics, and neuroethics are all disciplines that explore and examine the relationships between brain function and these areas of social and political interest. It is easy start one’s own branch of neuro-something by just putting neuro in front of the area and exploring the role of specific brain functions relative to it. As we come closer to our MHC conference, one might wonder how a neuro approach to our topics of interest might benefit our efforts to understand our own criminal justice system. This is not as far fetched as some might believe. For years, researchers have been very interested in the brains of offenders, and how the brains of persistent offenders and psychopaths might be different than "normal” brains in order that more effective risk management measures and treatments might be devised.


Early progress was limited by the measurement tools (e.g., EEGs, polygraph machines) available at the time. However, over the past decade, advances in brain assessment technology (e.g., fMRIs, MRIa, PET scans) now allow researchers to explore how and where our brains—both normal and damaged-- function in response to tasks such as reading, writing, emotional distress, imagined scenarios, risk taking, and problem solving, in greater neurological detail. The general consensus so far has been that…well…it is all in our heads! I forgive the reader if there is no gasp of "Wow! Who would’ve thought it?” However, the implications of that consensus are very profound.


Most of the neuro interest has understandably been in discovering ways in which criminal’s brains may predispose them to offending, often in persistent and/or violent ways, and apply what we learn for habilitation purposes. The general conclusion has been that genetics and environmental exposure both play significant roles in both the neuroarchitecture and development of the brains of persistent and violent offenders. However, much less research has explored something equally important, if not moreso: our brain’s responses to criminal behavior that influence our definition of offenders and offending, and how those shape the liberal and conservative sociopolitical and legislative decisions that in turn has shaped the status quo of our criminal justice system that determines the kind of offender many of us finally meet in our work. After all, who goes to jail and who doesn’t is the result of rather complex decision-making that occurs within someone’s brain.


Therefore, understanding brain functioning can help all of us understand the ins and outs of the neuroethics, neurolaw, neuro-and genopolitics of our criminal justice system in ways that might allow us to more meaningfully change the status quo. I’ll be sharing more information about this area in my presentation about why reentry is so hard. It is, after all, all in our heads!


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