Will Neurocriminology make Minority Report real?

Since the ISIS attacks in Paris on November 13th 2015, successive terrorist attacks have occurred throughout Europe and other parts of the world. People across the world are horrified by terrorists represented by ISIS and demand solutions to prevent future terrorist attacks by any means. It seems that counter-terrorism is now an immediate problem which every part of the world should collaborate on.

As a (potential) neuroscientist, I naturally came up with the question, ‘what if we could know in advance, by scanning brains, which terrorists are going to attack, where, and when, and prevent them from doing it?’ Sounds familiar, huh? The famous novel and movie Minority Report captures the exact same story: knowing in advance which criminals will commit murder and preventing it, the so-called ‘pre-crime.’ In fact, Minority Report does not seem to be a just far-away scifi novel any more because of the growing field of ‘neurocriminology.’ I would like to guide you through the current advancements in neurocriminology, and the possible consequences and ethical debates.

The movie Minority Report (2002). Pre-crime interface foresees future criminals and prevents them from offense.

First, let’s have a look at what kind of advancements there have been in neuroscience of criminology in the past few decades following the movie’s release. Of course, there are no ‘pre-cogs’, three hybrid prophets who foresee and show their visions to Tom Cruise in the movie, but the pre-cogs are being substituted by neuroscientific technology like the following.

  • Electroencephalography (EEG): Meixner and Rosenfeld of Northwestern University analyzed brain waves and successfully predicted when and how ‘terrorists’ will attack which cities [1]. The participants in this experiment were instructed to create mock terror scenarios, picking where, when and via which method they will attack from a given list. So, for example, one person might have planned a mock terrorist attack, ‘I will attack Houston on January 3rd, 2017 by bomb.’ Then the experimenters screened their brain waves by EEG while the participants were shown various city names, dates, and terror methods. Whenever the city names, dates, and methods participants planned appeared, the amplitude of P300 was the biggest. P300 is a positive peak of brain waves, which appears 300ms after stimuli is shown and is known to be activated when recognizing meaningful things.
  • Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI): Brain scanning can predict which criminals are likely to be rearrested within 4 years of release from prison [2]. In a study,the  Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a brain region known to be associated with error-related activity and impulse control, was hypothesized to predict the probability of being rearrested. The criminals performed a go / no-go task, which requires inhibition of behaviors and impulse control, while they were in the MRI scanner(you can try the go / no-go task yourself: http://cognitivefun.net/test/17 . You will realize that it is rather difficult to suppress the impulse to press ‘go’). And what the experimenters found was that the lower the activity in ACC during go / no-go task, the more chances of criminals being rearrested 4 years after being released.
  • Optogenetics: This may sound even creepier and dystopian, but some scientists have succeeded in making mice initiate attack by artificially activating the ventrolateral part of their ventromedial hypothalamus, which is known to be involved in aggression. This is possible by a relatively new neuroscientific method, optogenetics (A very good explanation about optogenetics can be found in our previous blog post). When the scientists stimulated hypothalamus of male mice by means of optogenetics, the mice elicited attack regardless of the target being a female or non-animal object. They also found that hypothalamus becomes activated just before the initiation of an attack. These results suggest that hypothalamus may be a direct cause of aggression in humans as well [3].
  • Other psychophysiological and genetic factors: Numerous factors have been found to predict later offense, ranging from prenatal, developmental to genetic factors. One of them include maternal nicotine consumption during pregnancy, which is correlated with reduced thickness of the orbitofrontal cortex and middle frontal cortex, two regions associated with antisocial behavior, and also correlated with the offspring’s later aggressive behavior. Also, early exposure to lead in childhood is known to reduce grey matter volume in prefrontal cortex and also predicts adolescent delinquency [4]. With regard to genetics, a recent research in 2015 identified two genes related to violent criminal behavior. The researchers identified genes of 895 criminals and contrasted them with a group of non-violent people, and found that two variant genes  were distinctive in the criminal group. On the other hand, the non-offense group showed no signal of these variants. They found that criminals with these variants were 13 times more likely to be involved in offense [5].

  Now, it’s time to debate. Yes, they are all groundbreaking technologies, but what we can do with them in the society is an entirely different issue. A Nature Neuroscience paper introduces three aspects of neurocriminology in relation to the legal context: prediction, prevention, and intervention [4]. Let’s look at each of the components and apply the technology I introduced as well as look at which points need to be debated in these components.

1. Punishment

    Neurocriminology can bring new standards to which extent the criminals should be punished. For example, mothers smoking during pregnancy can affect the child’s grey matter in the frontal regions of the brain, and subsequently the possibility of committing crime as well. Then should the child, who later offends, be responsible for the crime, if the crime could be attributed to the reduced grey matter from prenatal smoking? In the United States, an individual has ‘responsibility’ if the two conditions are met: 1. Having sufficient rational capacity 2. Not acting upon coercion [4]. So in this case, no matter how much the mother smoked during pregnancy, the child is still responsible for the crime.

   But what about psychopaths? There are opinions that psychopaths should be treated differently in this problem because they lack the first criterion: emotion, which is necessary to make rational and moral decisions. This controversial perspective about the responsibility of psychopathic criminals can be seen in the case of Donta Page: http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v15/n1/box/nrn3640_BX3.html [4].

2. Prediction

   In the first few minutes of Minority Report, there is a scene where Tom Cruise arrests a man, who was just about to kill his wife, under the name of ‘future crime.’ The man protests, crying “no, I didn’t do it!” This scene is meaningful in that it makes us question whether it is ethical to treat potential crime as if it actually happened. We have looked at the EEG experiment which predicts where, when and how the terrorists will initiate attack. If this technology advances to near perfection, still, is it right to use it as a legitimate basis to arrest a terrorist? Lucia Zedner, a professor of University of Oxford and co-author of the book Preventive Justice quotes, “Where is the harm? I can sit in my office and think evil thoughts about people all I like, but providing I do nothing about those thoughts there is no harm. And to that extent the harm principle, which underpins the whole basis of criminalisation, is not satisfied. [6]”

3. Prevention

  If we know which factors lead to crime, then making  interventions to reduce them seems plausible. Omega 3 fatty acids have been found to reduce offending in young offenders. Also, medications such as medroxyprogesterone or Depo-provera have been thought to reduce sex offending [4]. So, it would be efficient to use these simple medications to whichever person concerned to reduce the possibility of crime before it actually happens. However, one may argue that individuals have right for freedom, no matter how these interventions may maximize public good. Also, classifying a person to a ‘potential criminal group’ by his or her brain structures, genes, or psychophysiological traits and trying to take intervening actions may cause ‘labeling effect,’ or self-fulfilling prophecy.

  So, the take home message: although there have been groundbreaking advancements in technology to predict crime in the field of neuroscience, applying these technologies to real life is another dimension and has to be debated. It is not Minority Report yet, but if technology advances to the level of Minority Report without public debate about these issues, the future might be just as dystopian as in the movie.


[1] Meixner, J. B., & Rosenfeld, J. P. (2011). A mock terrorism application of the P300based concealed information test. Psychophysiology48(2), 149-154.

[2] Aharoni, E., Vincent, G. M., Harenski, C. L., Calhoun, V. D., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Gazzaniga, M. S., & Kiehl, K. A. (2013). Neuroprediction of future rearrest.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(15), 6223-6228.

[3] Lin, D., Boyle, M. P., Dollar, P., Lee, H., Lein, E. S., Perona, P., & Anderson, D. J. (2011). Functional identification of an aggression locus in the mouse hypothalamus. Nature470(7333), 221-226.

[4] Key reference: Glenn, A. L., & Raine, A. (2014). Neurocriminology: implications for the punishment, prediction and prevention of criminal behaviour. Nature Reviews Neuroscience15(1), 54-63.

[5] Tiihonen, J., Rautiainen, M. R., Ollila, H. M., Repo-Tiihonen, E., Virkkunen, M., Palotie, A., … & Saarela, J. (2015). Genetic background of extreme violent behavior. Molecular psychiatry20(6), 786-792.

[6] http://www.smh.com.au/national/can-technology-catch-terrorists-before-they-strike-20160425-goei6o.html

[7] Featured image acquired from:


[8] Picture acquired from:


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