Brains on Trial: Neuroscience & the Law

This is a 2-part post on the new PBS show, Brains on Trial (aired 9/11 and 9/18), including a written analysis1 of the ideas behind the documentary and an audio review2 of the accompanying panel event held at MIT.

By Shraddha Chakradhar

A panel discussion that accompanied the PBS documentary Brains on Trial with Alan Alda was held September 17at the McGovern Institute on Brain Research on MIT’s campus. The panel, also moderated by the legendary Alan Alda, featured some of the scientists that were included in the film, along with McGovern Institute director Robert Desimone and Stephen J. Morse, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania. The panel was centered on the ability of neuroscience to inform the criminal justice system. Topics included scanning an eyewitness to see if their memory is reliable, the developing brain of adolescents and how accountable they can be held because their mind is still in flux, and of course, whether any advances in neuroscience will actually be implemented in the courtroom.

I’m not a student of law or neuroscience, but as someone who takes an interest in both these fields, I don’t think we will come to the day when neuroscience and the criminal justice system are actively informing each other.

Forget the logistics and high standards required to have neuroimaging and the consequent analyses aid the process of convicting or acquitting someone, the innate differences between science and law would in themselves prevent this scenario from ever manifesting.

What I mean is that when you consider how law works—it’s all about precedence. When it comes to punishment, lawyers, judges, the jury, they all look to see how a defendant has behaved in the past and other indications from his/her life up until that point to determine the likelihood of the criminal committing similar crimes again. Even before sentencing, when it comes to evaluating the case, law looks to previous similar cases for presenting arguments. All cases are governed by previous cases, and all punishment is based on past behavior (this second one for obvious inability to time travel reasons, but still).

Law looks to the past to make decisions about the future.

On the other hand, science has always been forward looking. I hope this is self-explanatory, but if it’s not, then consider that science is always pushing the envelope of what we consider feasible or even realistic. Most things that have come out of the practice of science (like research science) have allowed us to take one more step into the future. Whether it’s a better vaccine, a better computer, or way before that, vaccines and computers period. Technology is innately futuristic since it’s all about improving on the last version and ensuring efficiency.

For instance, it took nearly a thousand years of collecting information on fingerprints and the uniqueness of every person’s fingerprint to get to the point of using fingerprinting as an identification method, one that courts rely on today. The Chinese began using fingerprints as identification for crimes way back in the 3rd century AD, and this method was also written about in 14th century Persia, but Western civilization wouldn’t come to adopt it until the 1800s!

So can you imagine, how long it will take for neuroscience to really become a courtroom regular? Especially given that the imaging technology we have isn’t foolproof and that our knowledge about the working and wiring of the brain is still emerging? Not to mention the ethical considerations when we would need to scan someone’s brain to get important information? Some neuroscience is already informing court decisions now—in cases where the accused clearly suffers from a mental disorder, for instance—but I think we have a long way to go before we can seriously debate this issue. Science hasn’t taken us that far into the future yet, and the law still has a lot of catching up to do.

Shraddha Chakradhar is a graduate of the Masters in Science Journalism program at Boston University. She writes about all things science, but mostly medicine. In addition to writing about science, she has also worked as a broadcast science journalist, producing museum videos and, most recently, working for NOVA.

By Alison Bruzek

Science in the courtroom isn’t new.  From photos to fingerprinting, advances in forensic technology have helped define truth from lie in an increasing number of court cases.  Now, there’s a new tool to add to the bench: neuroscience.  A new documentary called Brains on Trial examines the evidence for neuroimaging and a panel held at MIT took an in-depth look at the film’s major points.

alan alda

Music and sound clips from Brains on Trial: Neuroscience and the Law.

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