Neuroscience and the Law

August 3, 2014

MRI’s have been used in court before as evidence against and for defendants and victims. These brain-imaging devices use a very strong magnet to detect when there is more oxygen in a certain part of the brain which will show activity there. For example, when we are listening to music we will see increased activity in the temporal lobe, which is responsible for selective hearing and listening. But how could this be useful in court? Well, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) can read what we are thinking about. Whether it be about what we want to eat, or how to answer a question. This could lead to very accurate fMRI-based lie detector tests that could be used in court. Some lie detectors that are used today can be tricked and won’t always be 100% correct, but actually reading what the brain is doing, and where the activity is occurring is much more accurate. It can also be mentally scary for a defendant. They know that no matter what the truth will come out so they might as well confess. However, there are some downsides of fMRI. This new technology can help decipher mental states but a lot of the time, true inspiration or reason for committing crimes will not be discovered. We may not be able to rely on these tests as strong evidence, nor should be put a lot of weight into how much it will mean to a jury or judge. Furthermore,judges nor jury should be required to analyze the results of these tests themselves. Each side will need to bring in a neuroscientist to explain and analyze the given results. This can also bring misinterpretation because lawyers are trained to ask questions to the specialist that will give their side an advantage. Also, the two sides could have specialists that disagree with each other on the findings.   I recommend that we do admit and use the fMRI evidence in court, but with restrictions. The fMRI images and analysis should give evidence that clearly sides with either the defendant or prosecution, but the entire case should not be in the balance of the results. It should merely be used as affirmation of guilt or innocence.

Neuroscience and Law

August 2, 2014

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.