The Brain and Criminality

642 words | 3 page(s)

The history of crime is simultaneously the history of the identification and construction of the figure of the criminal. This figure is often understood as either a socially produced malefactor or as somehow inherently, biologically deficient. Key to the latter understanding of criminality is the notion of the brain itself and how its shape and function may lead to behaviours that are socially understood as criminal. This paper will demonstrate this in particular by paying to two areas of criminal behaviour; the criminal impulse itself and the lack of emotional intelligence that often goes along with it. In both of these cases it will demonstrate how criminal behaviour may have its roots in the physical structure of the brain itself.

Contemporary criminology understands the brain to be the seat of criminal agency. For example, Wright (2008) notes that, to begin with, the brain must be considered as the site of agency within any particular criminal. He writes: ‘Given that the brain plays such a vital role in all cognitive functions, it follows that criminal activity is a result of the processes going on there. Whether the reason to commit an offence is to make money, to get revenge…or just sheer stupidity, the brain always plays a central role (p. 66). Wright’s argument is that the brain should still be seen as central to criminal behaviour, but only in the way that it is central to all behaviour, as it is the seat of an otherwise free and conscious agent. Such an argument is able to draw on specific examples, in particular with relation to individuals who are deemed to exhibit sociopathic traits. Wright notes for example that motivation for crime, or at least a lack of emotional empathy, may come directly from a dysfunction in the amygadala, an area of the brain that is associated with emotional intelligence and the capacity to recognise others’ emotions (ibid. p. 73). If we understand the brain to be the seat of agency then it is easy to see how such dysfunction may lead to potentially criminal and violent behaviours as the usual emotional inhibitors against such behaviours would no longer be active. As such, it may be possible that a person will experience unusual emotional motivations for their behaviour and that these motivations will fail to take into account the lives of others around them.

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Secondly, it is possible to note the origin that criminal impulses may find in the brain’s cognitive structure. In particular, these can be seen to be present with regard to what are termed ‘executive functions.’ Beaver notes that such functions should be understood as being involved in the ability ‘delay gratification, to anticipate the consequences of actions, to control impulses…’ (p. 138). He then goes on to note that precisely the ability to perform such functions, exist in the combined areas of the prefrontal cortex and that, in situations in individuals who have been known to conduct criminal behaviour, and to have strong violent impulses, the capacity to perform such functions is in some way diminished. Taken together with the incapacity to possess emotional intelligence as described by Wright, it is clear how this inability to control impulses can clearly lead to violent criminal behaviour.

In conclusion, this paper has argued that a two key elements to violent criminal behaviour can be located directly within the physical structure of the human brain. The first of these is an incapacity for emotional intelligence and empathy, and the second is the inability to restrain impulses or to understand the consequences of actions. Both of these elements have been seen to be key in the development of criminal behaviour and both can be located directly within physical areas of the brain.

  • Beaver. “An Introduction to the Brain.”
  • Wright, John P. (2008) Criminals in the Making: Criminality Across the Life Course. New York: Sage Publications.

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