Man on the Bus

Brain Not WorkingIn an article written by Ian Sample for the Guardian, Nita Farahany, a professor of law who sits on President Barack Obama’s bioethics advisory panel notes, “criminal courts in the United States are facing a surge in the number of defendants [who are] arguing that their brains were to blame for their crimes. Attorneys of many defendants are “relying on questionable scans and other controversial, unproven neuroscience” in an effort to show that their client is not “fully responsible for murderous or other criminal actions.”

Lawyers have, for some time, used brain scans and neuropsychological tests to reduce defendants’ sentences, but according to the article, “in a substantial number of cases the evidence [is now] used to try to clear defendants of all culpability.” I can understand how brain injury can stop or delay people from doing what they want to do, but it is not clear to me that brain injury is an acceptable excuse for doing something immoral or illegal. I am not suggesting that brain injury cannot cause somebody to act inappropriately (I’m certain it can), only that having a brain injury should not be a legal excuse for committing a crime.

After studying more than 1,500 judicial opinions from 2005 to 2012, Farahany concluded “what is novel is the use by criminal defendants to say, essentially, that my brain made me do it.” Farahany also noted “the survey even found cases where defendants had used neuroscience to argue that their confessions should be struck out because [the defendants] were not competent to provide them.” I view this as an absolutely ridiculous argument. It is very similar to suggesting the confession of a drunk driver should be dismissed because science could show the drunk driver was not competent.

Scans and neuroscience have swayed judgments in the past. For example, in 2009 an Italian woman pleaded guilty to murdering her sister, setting fire to the corpse, and later attempting to kill her parents. She received a life sentence, but in 2011 Judge Luisa lo Gatto considered new evidence based on brain scans and genetics. Experts argued that the crime was driven by abnormalities in the anterior cingulate gyrus, which is involved in impulsivity, and the insula, which has been linked to aggression. The judge reduced murderer’s sentence to 20 years.

As I read the article written by Sample, I began to think about the point at which actions become tolerable simply because the criminal’s brain is injured. Is a concussion enough evidence? How about a 215.73 hour coma? Perhaps, a scan must show proof of bleeding, a tumor, or 32.861% less functionality than an “average” person would have. Suddenly, the thought occurred to me that murderers and rapists must be mentally unstable or they could not commit the crimes. If we take the legal argument to its extreme, then heinous crime should be tolerated by the legal system because the crime was committed by a person who had some sort of brain injury,  whether or not today’s neuro-scientists could detect the brain injury. Nonsense!

Your Turn

  • Do you feel brain injury is a valid excuse for committing violent crimes?
  • If the crimes Matam mentioned were committed by brain injured people, does that make the crimes acceptable?
  • If a brain injured member of your close family committed a violent crime, who is accountable?


Thanks to Hamutal Meridor for sharing the article upon which this post is largely based; Ian Sample for writing the article; The Guardian for publishing the article; Ho from Reuters for providing the picture used in the article; Jennifer Stockley for sharing the video I used in this post; Pages Matam who created and passionately shared the poem “Piñata;” the National Poetry Slam in Boston, Massachusetts for providing Matam the forum in which to share his poem;  Sam Cook and Dylan Garity who produced a video of Matam sharing his poem; YouTube for hosting the video; and all the other people who directly or indirectly made it possible for me to include the picture, text, and video I used in this post.


  1. I don’t doubt that criminal behavior can be a function of brain malfunctioning. But this is the very group that should discuss the question: Does it matter? If someone murders because they have no impulse control, does it change anything? I know intent is one of the supposed measures of criminality but I think intent only matters in so far as it is not accident or negligence. So — what do you think? Does it matter ?

    1. Susan, you raise a very interesting issue — is it fair to say that someone who has no capability of “intent” really committed a crime. Although, if there is a victim, we know a crime was committed. Who is to blame? Who is to be punished? What punishment is appropriate? Does punishment make a difference? I really don’t have answers or solutions. I suppose the questions are also appropriate for smaller crimes.

  2. Deb,

    I think interaction is essential to recovery, and I understand how a Google Hangout could prevent or cure loneliness, but I have a few questions. Is 10 people your self-imposed limit? If so, then how did you pick 10 as the limit. Is 10 people per hangout a Google imposed limit? How often do you plan to conduct hangouts. Have you considered the time commitment? Would you invite experts to join your hangouts? I think what you are planning to do is a great idea. How may I help?


  3. Deb, I agree that we have to stop “sweeping the problem under the rug and start dealing with it,” but the question then is how best to deal with it. Do you have any ideas about the solution?

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