Thursday, January 01, 2004

The Criminal Brain: A View from the Bench

Exploring the Criminal Mind

By: William J. Winslade, Jr., Ph.D., J.D.


What goes on in the minds of criminals? This question raises perennial philosophical issues about human behavior in general and criminal conduct in particular. Do criminals act the way they do because of how and what they think and feel? And, are these “internal” forces of thought and feeling caused by the states of their brains, which in turn are predetermined by biology, chemistry, and genetics? Is the problem, in short, what used to be called “bad blood”? Or, are the thoughts, feelings, and actions of criminals caused by “external” factors such as parents, education, and other influences in the environment that mold and shape malleable brains, which, in turn, give rise to the criminal personality? In other words, is the real culprit for criminal behavior what used to be called “society”? With the emergence of brain science over the past 50 years, including brain imaging technologies and the study of brain chemistry, perhaps we can return to these profound questions with new hope of making progress toward answers.

At the present time, although some scholars of brain science lean heavily toward a reductionistic biological determinism, others call attention to the plasticity of the brain and its capacity for change. Even if we cannot ever uncover a single satisfactory answer to how the criminal mind works, perhaps we can begin to diminish the devastation caused by criminal behavior. An exploration of the criminal mind might yield insights, ideas, and innovative hypotheses worthy of serious consideration and further study. It might also provoke us to reconsider how we think about the questions we ask about the causes of criminal behavior. Instead of polarizing the discussion by pitting determinism (biological or social) against free will as mutually exclusive explanations of criminal conduct, we might discover that biological predispositions and habits of thought can be influenced by education, cognitive retraining, and behavior modification. Whatever our current state of knowledge, isn’t it worth our effort to try to formulate better theories and more effective forms of intervention?

That daunting task has been undertaken in a new e-book titled Exploring the Criminal Mind and subtitled Advances of Brainscience and Mental Procedures of the Criminal Personality: A Unified Brain-Mind Theory. The author and publisher, Jens-Jacob Sander, is a judge in the Norwegian Courts of Justice, located west of the city of Oslo. Judge Sander tells us in the foreword to his book that it grew out of his frustration with trying to understand the criminal mind while he was engaged in “a major international fraud-hunt in 1989” that, although successful, was apparently hampered by the lack of adequate information and insights about criminal minds. Judge Sander provides no further information about that intriguing “international fraud-hunt.” This reviewer, and I suspect other readers, would welcome more details about that case and perhaps other cases that might concretize the scientific ideas and theoretical claims that are suggestively, but often cryptically, sprinkled throughout the book. 

Much of what Judge Sander offers the reader is formulated in intriguing and tantalizing abstractions drawn from summaries and conclusions of psychological studies of criminals’ mental processes and from theories about brain functioning. One great advantage of an e-book is that it can be so readily revised and expanded. I suggest that Judge Sander might want to do exactly that in order to include both case materials and further explanation for lay readers of the scientific evidence on which he relies. 


I found it difficult to follow Sander’s line of argument without turning to some of the original sources he cites in putting together his unified brain-mind theory of criminal thinking. He refers to the studies of The Criminal Personality by psychiatrist Samuel Yochelson and psychologist Stanton E. Samenow for valuable insights about the phenomenology and psychology of criminal thinking. Yochelson and Samenow studied the thinking of criminals as well as persons found not guilty by reason of insanity. They thought that criminals freely choose to commit crimes; even many persons judged to be insane should be held responsible for their conduct. Yochelson and Samenow view criminals, not as victims of social rejection and deprivation, but as victimizers who deliberately manipulate and exploit others. Judge Sander also especially relies on research of Harvard neuroscientist and dream researcher J. Allan Hobson, M.D., in The Chemistry of Conscious States and his more technical writings, as well as the research of psychologist Adrian Raine, D. Phil., and his colleagues, who used PET (positron emission tomography) scans to study the brain activity of murderers. With some of these sources under my belt, I better understood ideas in Sander’s book that had seemed cryptic and merely asserted rather than coherent and explanatory. 

Even so, Sander’s book invites—and indeed provokes—the reader to delve further into the nature of criminal thinking and of criminals’ brains. The book also boldly proposes a unified theory intended to link psychological insights about criminal thinking with what is known about the brain functioning of criminals. Although Judge Sander candidly acknowledges that some of his conclusions and proposals for changing how society responds to criminals are speculative, his book is admirable for its ambitious aims, even if his arguments and evidence do not suffice to achieve them. Perhaps further research will confirm or falsify Judge Sander’s thesis (and, in truth, a postulate of modern brain science itself) that: 

... subjective mental states of criminals go hand in hand with objective brain states. These are states that arguably can be deduced from the mental states on the basis of brain-knowledge. These views are supported by studies examining brains of hard-core criminals, using brain imaging techniques. 

For insights, Sander turns first to neuroscience, asking “what can advances in brain science tell us about criminals?” He believes that certain parts of the brains of criminals can function in a manner that interferes with their ability to process information. In particular, he thinks that criminals can lack or have defects in the capacities for deliberation, conceptual thinking, awareness of options, and choices that are characteristic of noncriminals, who act responsibly and with self-restraint. This defect can be traced in the brains of criminals to a hyperactive amygdala, which interferes with the operation of other cortical areas that seem to be essential for deliberation, choice, and change. To support this hypothesis, Sander cites the psychological research of Yochelson and Samenow that demonstrates criminals’ inability to think conceptually with appreciation of options and choices, and he links this research with the studies of Raine and his colleagues showing that the brains of 41 criminals displayed less-active cortical function in the part of the brain that seems to control conceptual thinking and choices. 

Of course, this does not answer the critical question about causation. Do habits of thought cause changes in brain activity or does brain activity cause habits of thought? Or does interaction go both ways? Sander seems to think that brain function causes mental states; in that respect, his position tilts strongly in the direction of biological-brain determinism. But he also hopes that the plasticity of the brain will permit changes in the criminal mind, albeit only with great difficulty. Despite Sander’s modesty about the evidence for the claims made in his book, he clearly is dazzled by brain science and its potential explanatory power. “Probably the brain is the most complex creation in the whole universe,” he writes, and he goes on to declare that “this central organ is the instrument that makes us who we are. In factwe are our brains ” (italics added). Taken literally, this is not only brain determinism, it is brain reductionism. 


Sander’s description of the subjective mental states that typify the criminal mind relies heavily on the clinical studies by Yochelson and Samenow. He focuses, however, on only some of the key features of the criminal mind that they identify: fear, anger, corrosion of deterrents, cutoff of deterrents, hyperoptimism, and lying. The recurring theme in Sander’s analysis of these features is that criminals experience these mental states in strikingly different ways from responsible people. The general argument is that criminals live, as it were, in their own private world, driven by their inner inclinations, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions and subject to few outside influences on their mental states. This argument helps to explain why criminals have so little regard for the interests of others, fail to assess realistically the consequences of their conduct, and continuously ruminate about their fantasies and daydream about their crimes. 

For example, Sander tells us that fear is deeply rooted in the personality of criminals and is a continuous underlying presence. In contrast to persons who correctly assess the seriousness and probability of a threat that produces fear, “the fear of criminals,” according to Sander, “seems more a product of their inner generated brain data, thoughts or signals, without contact or reduced contact with the outside world.” Criminals deny their fearfulness and try to convince others that they are fearless; despite their efforts, they cannot eradicate fear. The fear is radical and present already at an early age in the criminal child. The presence of fear emerges so early that it seems to be independent of experience. Further, the criminal kind of fear is said to last life-long. 

Anger in criminals is described in a similar way by Sander. He quotes Yochelson and Samenow: 

Anger, though pervasive in the criminal, is not always shown. The criminal is chronically angry—even as he walks down the street. Anger is a mental state that is sometimes expressed outwardly, but more often boils within. It is most dangerous when it is not on the surface. Anger is as basic to his personality as the iris is to the eye. 

Sander comments that, “We shall in the criminal see a durable or lasting anger during walking. This too may support the suggestion that anger in the criminal does not stem from outer circumstances.” Anger, in this view, stems from inner states rather than being a reaction to external events. 

The pervasive and persistent nature of fear and anger in the criminal mind obstructs the processing of information from the outside world. It is, says Sander, as if “a criminal is living in a state of a closed channel” and is unresponsive to the influence of other persons. Similarly, a criminal is not deterred from pursuing crime by fear of being caught or punished, because his repetitive inner theater wears down the power of the deterrents by “corrosion.” Just as the criminal endlessly mentally rehearses his contemplated crime, he also discounts the chance that he will fail. This perception leads the criminal to hyperoptimism about his ability to commit a crime without being caught and to disregard external information about risk of apprehension. Finally, criminals are prone to lie, even when the truth is apparent and others are not deceived. The criminal brazenly lies because to do so is habitual and automatic, even though the criminal is fully aware of his lies.

Although Judge Sander does not provide concrete examples of criminal thinking, his practical judicial experience is probably replete with such cases. In my own limited experience of interviewing chronic criminal offenders, I find much to confirm the accuracy of Sander’s analysis. For example, I once was asked to evaluate a murderer after his conviction so I could testify at the penalty phase of his trial. This young man of 28 had been convicted of brutally murdering a woman for whom he was doing repair work. His family was stunned at the conviction, because the young man was ordinarily docile, polite, and submissive, yet when he drank alcohol and smoked marijuana, he flew into murderous rages. I learned that he was, in fact, a serial killer and had murdered several women without getting caught. When I conducted extensive interviews with him, he at first denied that he had committed the murder, even though he had easily been convicted. When I asked him about the multiple murders, he again lied. I attempted to explore his anger toward women. His response was that he was not angry at all, despite the objective evidence. After much probing, I learned (and confirmed) that he had been forcibly sexually molested by his mother when he was a young child, but no one in his family knew about it. Yet it became clear to me that his fear of molestation and exploitation converted into murderous rage when his inhibitions were relaxed. He had obsessed for years about revenge for the molestation, while outwardly appearing to be a “nice, polite boy.” His first criminal offense occurred when he raped the mother of his first girlfriend, after which the mother felt sorry for him and drove him home. After this first crime, his diminished fear of being caught and his hyperoptimism fueled his repeated murders, until he finally committed a crime so blatant that it was inevitable he would be caught. But this criminal was living in his own delusional world; he lacked fear of detection, he denied his murderous rage, he ignored external deterrents, he falsely believed he could get away with serial murders, and he blatantly lied about his crimes. He was sentenced to capital punishment and was executed. 

On another occasion, I evaluated several pedophiles. It is clear to me that these men experience persistent fear and anger in the manner described by Sander. They attempt to overcome their fear of being rejected by exploiting children through bribery and manipulation. These offenders often have little insight into their underlying anger about their own lack of importance, so they try to compensate by dominating others who are vulnerable, but they have little regard for the harm they cause. Pedophiles typically get away with their crime for years before they are caught, so they overcome their fear of being caught and become hyperoptimistic. They even convince themselves that they are not really causing harm, because they are showing their love and concern for the children, and they obsessively fantasize about their crimes to diminish the deterrent effects of social disapproval. Even after they are caught, they lie about their offenses and insist that they have been wrongly convicted. It is, as Sander points out, much harder for them to face and tell the truth. Thus, the subjective characteristics of the criminal mind described by Sander certainly seem to be confirmed in my experience.


The most innovative—and also the most speculative—feature of Sander’s book is his attempt to establish that objective brain states correlate with the subjective mental states of criminals. Sander’s hypothesis could be difficult to establish on the basis of available evidence, and at times he seems to offer speculation as though it is ample proof. I will describe Sander’s ideas in nontechnical language, keeping in mind that he has relied on considerable recent neuroscience research to support his view that objective brain states not only correspond to but also cause subjective mental states of criminals. (Recall his assertion that “we are our brains.”) 

Relying on an adaptation of Hobson’s brain-mind model, Sander tries to show that criminal consciousness differs significantly from that of noncriminals. The central claim is that criminals generate thoughts and feelings almost exclusively from inner data and processing, rather than from balancing inner brain states and outer information. Another way of putting this is to say that criminals’ brains work differently from those of non-criminals. Criminals not only live in their own subjective world and block out information from the outside world, but also their mental states are a product of their brain states largely unmediated by processing information from external stimuli. Sander tries to show that particular mental states of criminals can be related to brain functions that might explain their closed channels to the outside world, as well as to obstruction of brain functions that normally lead to conceptual thinking, awareness of options, and choices. He appeals to Hobson’s brain-mind model that links brain activity, chemical modulation, and information processing to the specific functions of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Sander opines that a hyperactive amygdala obstructs the cognitive controls emanating from the prefrontal cortex. As a result, the brain states of “the criminal mind and its brain tend to process data more on an inner level…. The dramatic impact is a petrifying effect on the brain-mind’s ability to think and act responsibly.” 

Sander displays great familiarity with a broad range of neuroscience literature and has obviously devoted considerable effort to educate himself about neuroscience and the brain. Yet his discussion of the application of neuroscience to the criminal mind is less persuasive to me than his descriptions of the subjective mental states of criminals. Perhaps this is simply because, as a layman, I find the technical neuroscience discussions in Sander’s book to be too conclusory. He relies on extrapolation from the writings of Hobson, Raine, and others without the benefit of the supporting evidence from their research or their cautions about the inferences that can be drawn from it. However, I lack the expertise to assess either their findings or Sander’s adaptations of them. Experts in neuroscience will have to evaluate whether Judge Sander has put forth convincing applications and working hypotheses for further research. 

One area of research that seems to support Sander’s conclusions is the use of PET scans to study the brain function of murderers. The studies of Raine and his colleagues seem to show that abnormal functioning in the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala (among other areas) “provide[s] initial indications of a network of abnormal cortical and subcortical brain processes that may predispose to violence in murderers pleading NGRI (Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity).” Raine, however, cautions that his research does not establish how brain states and mental states are causally connected, nor does he contend that his research can account for genetic, environmental, or other factors that could shape the minds, brains, or conduct of murders. Nevertheless, Raine’s research confirms at least that the brain states of murderers differ from those of nonmurderers. Further research using brain imaging techniques might yield valuable insights about criminal minds and brains, but Sander’s extrapolations should be tempered by Raine’s circumspect qualifications. 


Sander apparently thinks that the brains of criminals could be pointed toward crime as a result of hyperactive function of the amygdala early in childhood development. By the age of three or four, the emerging criminal mind could be developing the subjective mental states that promote and produce criminal thinking. Sander speculates that early childhood brain development can be negatively influenced by hormonal factors such as testosterone production or by genetic defects. He also suggests that, for some children, reality testing and information processing can prove to be too demanding. This demand could drive them to block out “signals from the outer world” through daydreaming or repetitive thoughts. According to Sander, this process moves such children far down the path of criminal thinking. 

Although Sander acknowledges that “the brain is adaptable and plastic and… that the brain’s learning is almost a life-long process,” he does not develop this idea. He does suggest that we should seek to enhance development of the prefrontal cortex in children to improve their ability to perceive reality and process information from the outer world. But he also suspects “that for some children the difficulties of the brain-mind and its mechanisms to manage all this may be so stuck from the beginning that a criminal mind is the apparent or even in the extreme cases the only practical alternative without choice.” This pessimistic vision seems quite in keeping with Sander’s brain-mind reductionism. 

When it comes to adult criminals, Sander is also decidedly pessimistic. Psychotherapy does not help, he says. Psychiatric treatment is of little value. Incarceration reinforces rather than reforms criminal thinking. Community service also fails. The best hope, according to Sander, is to develop a “neurodynamic change program” aimed at “elimination of all these criminal thinking premises.” This is a tall order, even if neuroscience could not only assist in developing different subjective mental states but also change objective brain states. With a sudden burst of optimism, Sander proposes that PET scanning can pave the way to develop such new techniques. He goes on to express his hope that a unified theory of brain-mind— such as that outlined by Hobson —“may prove to be another step toward a new psychology— a neurodynamic psychology of crime.”

Speculating about new ways to change criminal thinking and diminish criminal behavior is admirable. But the momentum of Sander’s book pulls us in quite another direction. He is more impressed by the intractability to change in the brains of criminals than he is by the brain’s plasticity, an idea to which he gives scant attention. Sander is distressed not only by crime but also by the tragic fate of criminals who have little, if any, control over the destiny of their brain states and the mental processes they produce. If he is right in this view, there is really not much we can do about it.



From Exploring the Criminal Mind by Jens-Jacob Sander. © 2003 by Jens-Jacob Sander. E-book: Reprinted with permission.

Without clear understanding of criminals how can we efficiently fight crime? How can we provide investigators with the necessary knowledge about criminal thinking? How can we deal with criminals in court? What can we do with criminals and what can we do for them to prevent future crime?... 

With these challenges clear in mind we shall turn to our starting point for our journey and ask: what can advances in brain science tell us about criminals? Its recent findings and methods may provide new and highly useful information on criminal thinking and behavior. Further it can help unravel why the criminal personality appears both reluctant to change and changeable. If we get these things straightened out in a working manner we may also be able to create proper remedies on the correctional side. 

As we soon shall see, criminals are suggested to be reluctant to become responsible people because of certain mental procedures and because of underlying brain mechanisms both opposing change. One mechanism contributing to this may be a mechanism connected to the brain’s input/output system for data. This is a system influencing on the brain’s ways of handling or processing certain data possibly producing or contributing to an information function disorder of criminals. 

Another factor may be mechanisms connected mainly to activity of a small brain part of the limbic lobe. This part which is well known to neuroscientists is called the amygdala. An activated amygdala seems to be a structural hardwired component creating effects that defy easy alteration of the mind, in our case the criminal mind. 

Still, the brain through its other components and modules seems able to change its operation of the input/output channel, and it seems able to modify and even “switch off” its amygdala in a literal sense. To phrase it more precisely, reducing the relative activation of the amygdala may allow “turning on” other brain areas, one of which is called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—DLPFC. This is a vital part of each brain hemisphere’s prefrontal cortex. Each individual’s pair of DLPFCs is situated approximately 4 centimeters (one and a half inch) above the eyebrows. These are cortical areas which are seen to be vital for deliberate considerations, conceptual thinking, perspectives and choices. 

Yochelson and Samenow in their work found that conceptual thinking and perspective thinking of 255 criminals within their reign of search were defective. Raine et al 1997 found that the DLPFC of 41 murderers compared to controls were relatively less activated. 

We shall further along our path see why the brain itself may make it so difficult to change criminals to responsible citizens. But realizing the difficulties we shall not lose hope acknowledging the plasticity of the brain, taking into account practical experiences indicating its vast change potential. Despite the difficulties, positive change is within reach for many criminals. 

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Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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