Neuroimaging Technology in Court

Big Think’s recent article “How Neuroscience is Changing the Law”, discusses new neuroimaging technology that reveals how issues pertaining to crime and punishment are processed in the brain.

One of the ways neuroimaging technology can be utilized is for neural lie detection.

In 2010, the court case US vs Semrau was the first time a ruling was rendered on whether or not the fMRI-based lie detection technology could be considered valid evidence in court.  The case involved Dr. Lorne Semrau who was being indicted for healthcare fraud. His lawyers were attempting to use fMRI scans to show that his testimonies were true.

However, “looking for lies in the neural architecture remains an imperfect science.” The current technology is able to detect differences in brain activity between when a subject is being deceptive and when they are being honest. However, there is no way to distinguish which brain responses come from a lie and which ones come from the truth.

It seems this technology has quite a ways to go before it can truly be used as admissible evidence in court. Even then, one has to think how this technology would work with pathological liars and sociopaths, who actually believe their lies to be the truth. How would a brain scan be able to find any evidence of deception in these types of suspects?

There is also potential for fMRIs to detect one’s tendency towards one mental state or another, which may help a jury decide what mental state the defendant was in when the crime was committed. Since every brain is different, wouldn’t it be difficult to categorize the brain’s reactions during various mental states, since everyone’s brain may react differently to different stimuli?

Furthermore, the life-changing event of being arrested and charged with a crime would most definitely affect a person’s mental state; therefore, what appears in a brain scan taken after a suspect is charged would be very different from how their brain would have looked in a scan taken before the arrest. Since there is no way to obtain a scan of someone’s brain from the past, there is nothing for neurologists to compare it to.

Scientists are also attempting to utilize fMRIs to determine the accuracy of memories, a subject which we recently blogged about.

However, the way that the human brain processes memories has so many intricacies, and one has to wonder whether or not determining the accuracy of memories is truly possible. The human memory is highly suggestible, and false memories can be created. It is doubtful that technology could be developed that would distinguish between a true memory and a created one, since the subjects themselves would believe these created memories to be true.

It seems as though this technology is far from being developed enough for its results to be admissible in court. Even then, it sounds as though categorizing brain activity is proving to be a difficult process, perhaps one that can never truly be perfected. What do you think?

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