Are some people more likely than others to commit a criminal act simply because of their specific brain characteristics? This is the question I will try to answer. But before talking about criminality, I need to give you some basic informations.

The frontal lobe, represented by the whole blue part, is divided into two distinct parts: the prefrontal cortex and the motor cortex.

Frontal lobe (prefrontal cortex and motor cortex

The prefrontal cortex is used for more complex functions like planning, attention, reasoning, retrieving information from working memory, etc. It’s divided into several parts, but we will be particularly interested in these 3 regions:

Cortex orbitofrontal, cortex cingulaire antérieur et cortex préfrontal ventromédian
Early lesion

Error in judgment behind criminality

Moral judgment is governed by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (CPFvm). There are two types of judgment: impersonal and personal. A lesion in this area alters personal judgment which can lead to behaviors considered immoral by most people.

Impersonal judgment, criminality

Impersonal judgment

As much in people who have a CPFvm lesion as in those who don’t, the same behavior is chosen: We would rather pull the lever and deflect the train on a person instead of five. It’s impersonal because the focus isn’t on the individuals. Indeed, they are all in the same situation and they cannot be given any personal characteristics. It’s mathematical.

Personal judgment, criminality

Personal judgment

The majority would let five people die rather than push one person onto the rail to divert the train (and save the other five). Pushing a specific person has an emotional component making it harder for most people to do so. However, when this situation is presented to people having a CPFvm injury, they will usually choose to push that person to save the other five.

Lack of empathy in criminality

Empathy is a social emotion preventing us from harming others by feeling their distress; put ourselves in their place. I would like to present two studies about the role of empathy in criminality.

Psychopathy, criminality
Empathy, criminality

Play Simon Says with the bandits

It’s possible to estimate a prisoner’s risk of recidivism with a test. To do so, we need to watch their brain activity while they perform a Go / No-Go task.

Bandit, criminality

Go / No-go is a test used to assess a person’s impulsivity by looking at their ability to inhibit behavior. We present 2 types of stimuli: when they perceive the Go stimulus, they take action and if they see the No-Go stimulus, they must not take action. Probably the best known example of Go / No-Go would probably be the children’s game Simon Says where to say “Simon Says…” is the Go stimulus and not to say “Simon Says…” before a sentence is the No-Go stimulus. However, in laboratory, they proceed rather like this: if the letter A is the Go stimulus and the letter a is the No-Go stimulus, when you see an A, you must press the space bar, and when you see an a, you may not press it.

Go-No go

Since they are forced to make these decisions quickly, it is difficult to inhibit their behavior of pressing space bar. By measuring their brain activity during the task, we notice one thing: The less active the anterior cingulate cortex during the task, the higher the probability of recidivism.

English isn’t my first language so there might be some mistakes. If you want, let me know in the comments bellow if you found any so I can fix them. Thank you!


Aharoni, E., Vincent, G. M., Harenski, C. L., Calhoun, V. D., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Gazzaniga, M. S., & Kiehl, K. A. (2013). Neuroprediction of future rearrest. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America110(15), 6223–6228.

Darby, R. R., Horn, A., Cushman, F., & Fox, M. D. (2018). Lesion network localization of criminal behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America115(3), 601–606.

Decety, J., Skelly, L. R., & Kiehl, K. A. (2013). Brain response to empathy-eliciting scenarios involving pain in incarcerated individuals with psychopathy. JAMA psychiatry70(6), 638–645.

Motzkin, J. C., Newman, J. P., Kiehl, K. A., & Koenigs, M. (2011). Reduced prefrontal connectivity in psychopathy. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience31(48), 17348–17357.

Singer T, Seymour B, O’Doherty J, Kaube H, Dolan RJ, Frith CD. Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain. Science. 2004;303(5661):1157‐1162. doi:10.1126/science.1093535

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