Using Neuroscience to Understand the Criminal Mind

By: Dejaih Johnson

The legal system is primarily reactive in its processes. Whether through common law to prevent the reoccurrence of a certain act, or trials to determine the culpability of one accused of committing a certain act, much of the legwork is done after commission. However, what if we could get ahead of this and identify those prone to committing crimes before the commission? For ages we have marveled with the criminal mind, making countless attempts to understand what makes these individuals tick, and a team at Cornell University may have begun taking steps in the right direction.

Recently, Valerie Reyna and her team have made great strides with a study of self-reporting criminal and non-criminal tendency individuals. The team has examined the neurological correlations between risk-preferences and criminality in adults. In part one, participants were offered a choice between $20 guaranteed, or a coin flip to gamble for double or nothing. Results found that individuals with higher criminal tendencies chose the gamble, arguing that $40 is more than $20. In part two, participants were given an option between losing $20, or flipping a coin to lose $40 or lose nothing. Those with lower criminal tendencies chose to gamble, conversely, those with higher criminal-tendencies chose a sure loss over the gamble.

These results offer a much different approach to understanding the criminal mind – a cognitive approach. In particular, Reyna’s study illustrates that it may be possible to identify and deter future high criminal-tendency individuals before a commission. Perhaps the most important takeaway from this study comes from Reyna’s team monitoring brain activation during completion of the tasks. After reviewing the results, the team found greater activation in temporal and parietal cortices for individuals that had higher criminal tendencies. These two areas of the brain are mostly involved with cognitive analysis and reasoning. This suggests that higher risk-takers utilize these two areas to maximize their winnings and minimize their loss at all costs. Those that are ordinary risk-takers showed brain activity in the amygdala and striatal areas, commonly associated with emotional reactivity and reward motivation. This implies that ordinary risk-takers are allured by the sure winnings of $20 and emotionally deterred from the guaranteed loss, favoring the possibility of losing nothing.

Moving onward, this study further illustrates that research into the criminal mind is important in creating policy. Reyna’s study demonstrates that the criminal mind and criminal reasoning is not always the same. Therefore, public policy surrounding the legal system should reflect this. Reyna argues that this study provides a greater understanding of brain behavior and can result in a more just system to protect both the public and the rights of the individual.

Beyond the reactive implications, the team at Cornell has provided an understanding of how to prevent criminal behavior proactively. When asked about the consequences of her study, Reyna stated, “I think this can really give us insight into how to help young people.” For example, she continued, this may help distinguish those who will and will not become criminals, in addition to helping us understand their behaviors and how to rehabilitate them. No matter which way you look at the results, it is readily apparent that studies like that conducted by Reyna and her team significantly contribute towards understanding criminality and the criminal mind. It is expected that this will excite new, novel research into the topic.


Does neuroscience hold the key to understanding the criminal mind?, ScienceDaily (Sept. 5, 2018),