Neuroscience and the law

Using neuroscience technologies in court cases (such as newly advanced neuroimaging procedures) will undoubtedly have the potential to change law enforcement as we know it today. How we determine if someone is guilty could arguably become dependent on genuine scientific evidence. So far, the technologies that have been used as part of a court case (with a huge variety of reactions I should point out) include the fMRI (known to scientists as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), as well as techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG) and brain electrical oscillations signature (BEOS). Many more neuroscience technologies of this nature are currently under development, with a similar purpose in mind.

The fMRI works by measuring the activity of specific regions of the brain by means of blood flow to the area.  The assumption is made that greater blood flow to this region of the brain correlates to the activity of brain cells, which is then used as almost a modern day lie detector. Since the fMRI is not directly measuring signals between brain cells, an average is generated using multiple test subjects, to act as a comparison for the data obtained of the accused in the court room. An electroencephalogram is the recording of electrical activity across the scalp, which, like the fMRI, can be used as a form of lie detection. An abnormality in the pattern of brainwave activity will act as an indication that the individual is not being truthful. The assumption made with this technology is that every individual processes information that is familiar to them, differently from information that they do not recognise/ have never come across (and therefore the pattern will be slightly different). This enables neuro professionals to identify someone who is deceiving the court from someone who is not.

 The possibility that our brain could be responsible in shaping our behaviour is one reason why we should be using neuroscientific evidence in court cases. If this kind of technology had the ability to spot trends in the activity of the brains who have committed serious crimes, there is real potential for the development of treatments to “correct” this behaviour.

A major counter argument of using neurotechnologies such as the fMRI in the court room, is that the scans could have the potential to be used  by the defendant, as a persuasive argument for the benefit of themselves. He/she could argue that they have been clinically classified as a psychopath , with an abnormality to the brain, and that they no longer hold the responsibility for the crime they committed. Consequently, there could be an uproar that people can continue to commit crimes with no real punishment for their actions. Since the brain is the organ that makes us who we are, could this mean all behaviours could be excused on biological ground? Additionally, using evidence obtained from such neurotechnologies could  heavily influence jurisdiction one way or another in terms of the action that should be taken, and hence create bias in the courtroom.  There is also some concern as to whether neuroscience professionals could manipulate some of the scientific evidence in favour of their own opinions.

 As the knowledge of the brain stands, my view is that court cases should not  be heavily reliant on neurotechnologies. Currently, knowledge of various mental illnesses is not strong enough to give us definitive answers, and therefore could be dangerous in making such decisions. However, I do believe that as our understanding of neurological processes grows, that we should be looking more into the reasons behind our actions. Maybe for some individuals there is a genuine reason why they have acted in a particular way. I think that the use of this technology could be extremely useful in concluding the mental state of that individual, and could be the tipping point as to whether or not they are acquitted.

One response to “Neuroscience and the law”

  1. Fabiana Vilsan says:

    I mentioned a similar argument in my post. I do think that defendants would use MRI scans in their favor, by arguing that they are suffering from a neurological disease due to certain brain activity.

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