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Guilt And Punishment: Research Finds How Your Brain May Make Biased Decisions

Guilt And Punishment: Research Finds How Your Brain May Make Biased Decisions

Dealing with guilt and punishment is a part of civilized life. In America, the jury system determines the guilt of the accused after seeing all the evidence. After the jury decides, a judge will determine the appropriate punishment for the crime.

It turns out that the American justice system is a metaphorical way of doling out punishments. Research at Vanderbilt University has found that the processes used to assess guilt and punishment happen in different parts of your brain. This is interesting because the research suggests that one can change, and not just affect, another.

Essentially, one part of your brain might believe a person is without guilt, but another may still want to punish them. These two parts may be mutually exclusive. However, both parts need to be balanced in order for justice to be carried out in a fair way.

The report is called From Blame to Punishment: Disrupting Prefrontal Cortex Activity Reveals Norm Enforcement Mechanisms. In the study, the researchers explain that they used rTMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) on a specific area of the brain to alter the activity using a cell phone booster. The area of the brain manipulated by the scientists is known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

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The experiment included 66 volunteers. The volunteers were given scenarios of crimes that ranged from property destruction to death. The group was also told how responsible the suspect was for the crime.

Then, 33 people were given active rTMS while the other half were given a placebo. The subjects then had to decide what punishment to enforce on the criminals in the scenarios. These scenarios ranged from threats to home security, as well as assaults committed by the felons.

The results saw that those who had their brains manipulated with rTMS chose smaller, less-impactful punishments. This was even true for suspects that were fully responsible for the crimes in the scenarios.

In the cases where the accused was completely guilty but only committed a small crime, many of the subjects chose to award only small punishments.

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The results of the study suggested that the disruption to this area of the brain changed how the subjects made their decisions. This was despite the fact that the information did not change.

According to this research, deciding suitable punishment requires that the two different parts of the brain work in tandem to find a balance. In the study, the rTMS upset this balance and interfered with deciding punishments.

Previous research has suggested that the part of the brain reviewed in this study is used primarily in simple tasks. It also plays a role in memory and behavior. Researchers now believe that it is an important part of complex decision making.

This research has important implications for the increasing prevalence of neuroscience in the criminal justice system. Understanding how the brain makes decisions about guilt and punishment may eventually help the court system ensure that better decisions are made.

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This research, in combination with other advances in brain science, like understanding criminal behavior, can help ensure that the appropriate punishments are delivered to relevant guilty parties.

A better understanding of how guilt and punishment are decided will be especially important in the field of juvenile crimes. Understanding how punishments are decided for juvenile crime will hopefully help create a fairer system of punishment for youth.

For example, recent research has suggested that youth are more likely to commit worse crimes when they are a part of a group. Younger brains respond more to rewards in groups than they do alone. However, current punishments for gang crimes are harsher than punishments for crimes committed alone. This is in direct opposition to scientific evidence.

Assessing blameworthiness and delegating punishment are distinct cognitive processes. Hence, understanding the effect of these processes on decision making is important. If the court system can recognize that the processes in decision making are as complex as the criminal brain itself, it can work to create systems to keep these processes in check.

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Although it’s impossible to know for sure, some estimates suggest that between 2.3% and 5% of American prisoners are innocent of the crimes they were convicted of. Using neuroscience research to make sure better decisions are made can help keep innocent people out of jail.

Featured photo credit: David Ohmer via flickr.com

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Last Updated on September 10, 2018

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

We thought that the expression ‘broken heart’ was just a metaphor, but science is telling us that it is not: breakups and rejections do cause physical pain. When a group of psychologists asked research participants to look at images of their ex-partners who broke up with them, researchers found that the same brain areas that are activated by physical pain are also activated by looking at images of ex-partners. Looking at images of our ex is a painful experience, literally.[1].

Given that the effect of rejections and breakups is the same as the effect of physical pain, scientists have speculated on whether the practices that reduce physical pain could be used to reduce the emotional pain that follows from breakups and rejections. In a study on whether painkillers reduce the emotional pain caused by a breakup, researchers found that painkillers did help. Individuals who took painkillers were better able to deal with their breakup. Tamar Cohen wrote that “A simple dose of paracetamol could help ease the pain of a broken heart.”[2]

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Just like painkillers can be used to ease the pain of a broken heart, other practices that ease physical pain can also be used to ease the pain of rejections and breakups. Three of these scientifically validated practices are presented in this article.

Looking at images of loved ones

While images of ex-partners stimulate the pain neuro-circuitry in our brain, images of loved ones activate a different circuitry. Looking at images of people who care about us increases the release of oxytocin in our body. Oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone,” is the hormone that our body relies on to induce in us a soothing feeling of tranquility, even when we are under high stress and pain.

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In fact, oxytocin was found to have a crucial role as a mother is giving birth to her baby. Despite the extreme pain that a mother has to endure during delivery, the high level of oxytocin secreted by her body transforms pain into pleasure. Mariem Melainine notes that, “Oxytocin levels are usually at their peak during delivery, which promotes a sense of euphoria in the mother and helps her develop a stronger bond with her baby.”[3]

Whenever you feel tempted to look at images of your ex-partner, log into your Facebook page and start browsing images of your loved ones. As Eva Ritvo, M.D. notes, “Facebook fools our brain into believing that loved ones surround us, which historically was essential to our survival. The human brain, because it evolved thousands of years before photography, fails on many levels to recognize the difference between pictures and people”[4]

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Exercise

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that reduce our perception of pain. When our body is high on endorphins, painful sensations are kept outside of conscious awareness. It was found that exercise causes endorphins to be secreted in the brain and as a result produce a feeling of power, as psychologist Alex Korb noted in his book: “Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that act on your neurons like opiates (such as morphine or Vicodin) by sending a neural signal to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief.”[5] By inhibiting pain from being transmitted to our brain, exercise acts as a powerful antidote to the pain caused by rejections and breakups.

Meditation

Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who pioneered the use of mindfulness meditation therapy for patients with chronic pain, has argued that it is not pain itself that is harmful to our mental health, rather, it is the way we react to pain. When we react to pain with irritation, frustration, and self-pity, more pain is generated, and we enter a never ending spiral of painful thoughts and sensations.

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In order to disrupt the domino effect caused by reacting to pain with pain, Kabat Zinn and other proponents of mindfulness meditation therapy have suggested reacting to pain through nonjudgmental contemplation and acceptance. By practicing meditation on a daily basis and getting used to the habit of paying attention to the sensations generated by our body (including the painful ones and by observing these sensations nonjudgmentally and with compassion) our brain develops the habit of reacting to pain with grace and patience.

When you find yourself thinking about a recent breakup or a recent rejection, close your eyes and pay attention to the sensations produced by your body. Take deep breaths and as you are feeling the sensations produced by your body, distance yourself from them, and observe them without judgment and with compassion. If your brain starts wandering and gets distracted, gently bring back your compassionate nonjudgmental attention to your body. Try to do this exercise for one minute and gradually increase its duration.

With consistent practice, nonjudgmental acceptance will become our default reaction to breakups, rejections, and other disappointments that we experience in life. Every rejection and every breakup teaches us great lessons about relationships and about ourselves.

Featured photo credit: condesign via pixabay.com

Reference

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