Neurocriminologist Adrian Raine is a controversial figure in British science. He researches the biological basis of crime and asks questions that others shy away from. If you could use a brain scan to predict someone would become a psychopathic murderer, for example, shouldn’t you do that?

Raine’s thesis is the inspiration for Grey Matter, a play set a few years hence in a secure neurotreatment centre. This facility is where young men will find themselves if they fail their 18+ test – an assessment of their likelihood to commit murder, which is now compulsory since a mass school shooting. Scanned, probed and treated, they can get out if their test scores improve – but the prospects are grim in the desolate, violent environment, and meanwhile, their real lives outside move on without them. 

The parallel drawn by the show’s creators to today’s young offender institutions could hardly be clearer. 5000 young people are currently detained, often with little hope of rehabilitation and sometimes at the risk of extreme violence, as a Panorama programme earlier this year showed.

Yet, if there is a way to predict crime, do we have a moral duty to do so? The film Minority Report explored such questions, using the psychically-gifted precogs to enable authorities to catch perpetrators before crimes had been committed.

Raine’s precogs are the brain scans of offenders, on which he indicates enlarged or damaged areas he says could have predicted their behaviour. However, as many opponents point out, in modern social neuroscience, brain scans are notorious for their pretty colours and poor statistical significance.

Not even Raine’s discovery that his own brain had structures similar to his psychopathic test subjects made him abandon his perspective. His own wayward behaviours seemed to fizzle out in the environment of a new school at age 11.

But others may not be as lucky. Grey Matter shows us the possible risks we face if a government technocrat decides to adopt Raine’s theories to tackle crime instead of grappling with the much knottier societal problems that are its more likely roots. (RM)

Grey Matter ran at C Venues until August 29th - 

Adrian Raine’s work reviewed:

Treatment of young offenders:

Panorama programme:

The problem with trying to use brain scans statistically: