The future of justice: courtroom brain scans

Scientists can read a person's mind using fMRI brain scans. Now, commercial firms are selling lie detection services based on them. Now what?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

In March, we reported on new scientific evidence that brain scans can essentially read a person's mind.

The idea: use fMRI machines to record blood flow, then correlate the data with responses.

According to the study, the results were surprisingly accurate. Now, some attorneys are working to get fMRI scans admitted as legal evidence in court cases where good old lie detection tests simply won't do.

A Scientific American report details the minor trend, which is apparently causing consternation about what does and doesn't constitute reliable evidence of a person's thoughts. (If you're getting flashes of the Salem witch trials at this point, you're not alone.)

Until now, the research -- which has been underway for the better part of a decade -- was dedicated to improving our understanding of the human brain for the betterment of medicine.

But Hank Greely writes that commercial firms are capitalizing on recent breakthroughs by offering lie detection services tied to fMRI scans, despite a distinct lack of, well, proof.

He writes:

[Another] case turned on the question of whether we should use the technology, even if it worked. The plaintiff in a state court civil case in Brooklyn, N.Y., wanted to introduce an fMRI report to show that her main witness was telling the truth. The judge in that case ruled that the credibility of a fact witness was solely a question for the jury; expert testimony about the witness’s credibility was inadmissible, whether or not it was reliable.

The stakes are high, of course: lie detection could theoretically be applied in courtrooms, schools, prisons, airports and even the home. ("Of course I didn't drink, Mom." "Your scan says otherwise. You're grounded.")

Greely writes that until the accuracy of brain scans is determined, the U.S. and other nations should ban the non-research use of neuroimaging for lie detection. The question: as scientists learn how to detect pain, bias and memory, how will it affect our society?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards