Crime and Consciousness: Science and Involuntary Acts

135 Pages Posted: 13 Feb 2003


This article examines the important, but hardly recognized, legal implications that stem from modern scientific research on human consciousness. In light of groundbreaking scientific developments, the article focuses on questioning two of criminal law's traditional dichotomies: conscious versus unconscious thought processes, and voluntary versus involuntary acts. Evidence suggests that these dichotomies have no valid scientific basis, and in fact use antiquated models of mental functioning. These dichotomies also conflict conceptually and substantively with key criminal law defenses, such as insanity. This confusion frequently leads courts to adjudicate like individuals very differently based upon a misunderstanding of criminal defenses and the science that underlies them. This article considers possible solutions to this predicament which range from the total abolition of the voluntary act requirement to a new act requirement based on degrees of consciousness. The article proposes a compromise between these two extremes. Voluntary acts should consist of three parts: (1) voluntary acts, (2) involuntary acts, and (3) semi-voluntary acts. This new category of semi-voluntary acts not only incorporates modern ideas of consciousness but also advances the Model Penal Code. Using actual criminal cases, this article applies this new formulation of voluntary acts and shows how it leads to a more equitable resolution for criminal defendants, victims, and society.

Keywords: Crime, consciousness, unconsciousness, nonconsciousness, psychoanalytic, Freud, voluntary act requirement, involuntary acts, Model Penal Code, science, philosophy, free will, determinism, acts, automatism, sleepwalking, epilepsy, mens rea, psychology, insanity, intoxication, culpability

Suggested Citation

Denno, Deborah W., Crime and Consciousness: Science and Involuntary Acts. Available at SSRN: or

Deborah W. Denno (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

Fordham University School of Law
150 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States
212-636-6868 (Phone)
212-636-6899 (Fax)

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