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How neuroscience may influence society, legal system


The current issue of Scientific American includes a thought-provoking piece from Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at UC Santa Barbara, discussing how advances in brain imaging and deeper understanding of neurological behaviors could alter cultural views of personal credibility and responsibility, especially in the courtroom. In the article (subscription required), he writes:

Already attorneys are attempting to use brain scans as evidence in trials, and the courts are grappling with how to decide when such scans should be admissible. Down the road, an ability to link patterns of brain activity with mental states could upend old rules for deciding whether a defendant had control over his or her actions and gauging to what extent that defendant should be punished. No one yet has a clear idea of how to guide the changes, but the legal system, the public and neuroscientists need to understand the issues to ensure that our society remains a just one, even as new insights rock old ideas of human nature.

Over the past few years, fMRI scans have been submitted for consideration in a limited number of court cases during sentencing and, unsuccessfully, as a lie-detection method. As Gazzaniga notes, researchers at Stanford and elsewhere continue to study whether bran scans can detect dishonest behavior:

Recent work by Anthony D. Wagner, [PhD] and his colleagues at Stanford University, for instance, has revealed that under controlled experimental conditions fMRI, combined with complex analytical algorithms called pattern classifiers, can accurately determine that a person is remembering something but not whether the content of the detected memory is real or imagined. In other words, we might be able to use fMRI to detect whether individuals believe that they are recalling something, but we cannot tell whether their beliefs are accurate. Wagner concludes that fMRI methods may eventually be effective in detecting lies but that additional studies are needed.

But using brain scans to ascertain whether witnesses or defendants are being truthful is only the tip of the ethical iceberg. The legal relevance of scientific discoveries relating to how individuals' brains may shape their behavior opens the door to a wide range of questions that Gazzaniga examines more closely in the article.

Previously: Stanford professor on the ethical and legal implications of brain research, Functional magnetic resonance imaging could serve as lie-detector test in civil trial and Brain scan used in court in potential fMRI first
Photo by Stephen Hampshire

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