Friday, December 17, 2010

Joshua Buckholtz - The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment

This is a very interesting neuroscience study. One of the interesting findings, for me, was that a part of the brain involved in theory of mind (perspective taking) us activated before the analytical networks in assessing responsibility.

This brief quote is also of interest - it comes from the discussion section of the paper.
The present findings suggest that the two fundamental components of third-party legal decision-making—determining responsibility and assigning an appropriate punishment magnitude—are not supported by a single neural system. In particular, the results reveal a key role for the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in third-party punishment. This brain region appears to be involved in deciding whether or not to punish based on an assessment of criminal responsibility.
We appear to distinguish between responsibility or its absence in deciding punishments.

We can never reduce (in my opinion) the complexities of human morality to neurons in the brain, but we can begin to get a sense of the role the brain plays in the process of legal and moral decision making.

On the downside, lawyers will simply use this information, somehow, to better manipulate juries.

Full Reference:
Buckholtz, J., Asplund, C.L., Dux, P.E., Zald, D.H., Gore, J.C., Jones, O.D. & Marois, R. (2008. December). The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment. Neuron, Vol. 60, pp. 940-950. Available at SSRN:

Joshua Buckholtz
Vanderbilt University, Neuroscience Program

Christopher L. Asplund
Vanderbilt University

Paul E. Dux
Vanderbilt University

David H. Zald
Vanderbilt University

John C. Gore
Vanderbilt University

Owen D. Jones
Vanderbilt University - Law School & Department of Biological Sciences

Rene Marois
Vanderbilt University - Department of Psychology

Neuron, Vol. 60, pp. 940-950, December 2008

Abstract: This article reports the discovery, from the first full-scale law and neuroscience experiment, of the brain activity underlying punishment decisions.

We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity of subjects as they read hypothetical scenarios about harm-causing protagonists and then decided whether to punish and, if so, how much.

The key variables were: a) presence or absence of excusing, justifying, or otherwise mitigating factors (such as acting under duress); and b) harm severity (which ranged from a stolen CD to a rape/murder/torture combination).

Findings include:

(1) Analytic and emotional brain circuitries are jointly involved, yet quite separately deployed, during punishment decisions. Specifically:
(a) Analytic circuitry of the brain - centered on the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex - tracks how responsible a protagonist is for harmful behavior (but does not determine punishment levels across varying harms);

(b) Conversely, activity in brain circuitry important for experiencing emotion - the amygdala, for example - predicts punishment levels across the range of crime severity (but is uncorrelated with responsibility levels).
(2) Increased activity in a component of the so-called Theory of Mind (perspective-taking) network (the temporo-parietal junction) preceded increased activity in the analytic region, during responsibility assessments.

(3) The analytic region deployed in distinguishing between high and low responsibility for harmful behavior in third-party contexts is the same region that is most involved in punishing unfair economic behavior in two-party interactions.
Open access PDF download.

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