Scientists from Vanderbilt and Harvard universities have discovered how to alter the part of the brain that deals with punishment. The results of their study, which have been published in a recent edition of the journal Neuron, indicate that it’s possible to stimulate the part of the brain that deals with the assessment of punishment, and therefore influence penalty decisions.
The team carried out a series of experiments on 66 volunteers of both sexes, asking them to assess several scenarios where a crime was committed. The scenarios ranged from property loss through to death. Half of the participants were subjected to repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, a painless process which has a temporary effect on cognitive activity. This involved placing an electromagnet on the scalp to stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with punishment decisions. The remainder of the participants were given a placebo.
The study, while not unique, builds on previously undertaken research which has aimed to identify the pathways and cognitive processes involved in judgement and justice. For example, a study conducted in 2011 asked participants to play games which incorporated economic decision making, in order to assess the neurological activity involved when such decisions were made. These particular experiments showed that when a person felt a sense of unfairness, an automatic response was triggered in the amygdala, the part of the brain which deals with fear and anger.
However, this new study goes one step further, as it aimed to show how the brain reacts when faced with punishing a third party, a process which is largely guided by reason. In this case, participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging brain-scanning while being asked to evaluate a selection of scenarios. Those people with a high level of justice exhibited increased activity in the regions of the brain linked to higher-order cognition. Conversely, the areas of the brain linked with emotion were unaffected.
Co-author of the study, Owen Jones explained that their work had given them a deeper insight into how people make these kind of decisions and how the different parts of the brain contribute to the decision making process.
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