Neuroscience and Law

Many neuroscience technologies have been used in the courtroom, chiefly among them EEG (Electroencephalography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). EEG measures brain waves from the skull. These waves can communicate information about when the brain is active. However, EEG does not convey information about where the brain is active. fMRI, conversely, can pinpoint the location of activity in the brain but is unable to give a comprehensive time assessment. When used in tandem, EEG and fMRI can locate the area of activity as well as provide a time table for the activity. This is when brain imaging is at its most accurate. Using brain imaging technology, many scientists and lawyers argue that one can definitively tell when a suspect is lying or telling the truth. Thus, these technologies are sought in court cases when trying to prove a suspect’s innocence, or his/her insanity (and thereby exculpating the suspect). Select neuroscientists believe that through fMRI and EEG, they can prove that a person is a psychopath and consequently should not be accountable to the law. Using fMRI and EEG seem like very exciting methods that could potentially leave us with a legal system that finds the right culprit 100% of the time. However, these methods are not foolproof and often are not admissible in court due to a jury that may be more than just impressionable. Impressively scientific images or scans could be prejudicial to the jury, and therefore bias their judgment. Further, fMRI and EEG are not 100% accurate in their findings. In a court case where the suspect is a possible psychopath, but committed murder more than a decade ago, it is difficult to use a contemporary brain scan as evidence in a trial – the brain may have become analogous to that of a psychopath, but may not have been originally, at the time of the murder. In these types of cases, using scientific technologies may be useful, but not necessarily admissible in court. Further, it can easily be rebutted by other neuroscientists who do not believe that fMRI and EEG accurately depict a brain of a criminal. One of the main arguments, similar to that in gun control, against the use of brain scans in court is that People kill People, brains do not. People should be held responsible for their actions and deeds, regardless of their mental condition. However, this is a very old-fashioned, non-scientific-esque view – mental conditions alter perception and behavior, otherwise we would not label them as mental conditions. Resultantly, those who have neurological disorders (are diagnosed psychopaths) should be held accountable for their actions, but certain exception (such as no death penalty) should apply. At the end of the day, neuroscience is imperfect, far from absolute and definitive findings hence should not be used in court. However, with the continuous and perpetual advent of new technologies and better questioning techniques, neuroscience may one day become infallible, or close to infallible. If (and hopefully when), this happens, we can use neuroscience in court to do justice.

3 responses to “Neuroscience and Law”

  1. Whitney Grace Wilson says:

    I completely agree. There just aren’t enough definitive answers given.

  2. Elbert Y. Gong says:

    I like your point about using EEG and fMRI in tandem. They complement each others’ weaknesses. Although, I don’t know if that combination has ever been used in an actual court case. I’ve only known it to be used in the virtual lab from a few days ago.

    • Dhruv Mohnot says:

      Very true Elbert. I believe that maybe, one day, through significant technological advances, we can use the two procedures together and get definitive, fool-proof answers.

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