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Bad Memories

Publication Date: 
June 13, 2009
Molika Ashford

Professor Henry T. "Hank" Greely is quoted in Seed Magazine in an article about the use of neurotechnology in legal proceedings and whether it can be used to improve the reliability of eye-witness testimony:

Psychological research continues to undermine the trust given to eyewitnesses’ ability to accurately remember the details of a crime, and we’re becoming increasingly aware of how often their memories are unconsciously manipulated. Paired with a growing interest in the field of neurolaw, which examines the intersection of neuroscience and legal systems, the desire for tools that can objectively assess the accuracy of memories is palpable. But is it possible?

Recently, the stakes for answering that question have been raised. Last fall in the Indian city of Pune, a woman was convicted of murder on the basis of a brain scan that purported to show that she remembered putting arsenic in her husband’s food. This controversial case piqued the interest of Hank Greely, a law professor at Stanford University who specializes in the legal implications of neuroscience. “We want to figure out how plausible it actually is that you could tell if someone has a memory or not,” he says. “It’s certainly plausible enough to explore it.”

Greely is exploring that question, and many others, as the codirector of a multi-university undertaking called the Law and Neuroscience Project. Awarded a $10 million MacArthur Foundation grant in late 2007 and headquartered at the University of California, Santa Barbara, this group of about 40 neuroscientists, lawyers, and philosophers is making the first concerted effort to examine neuroscience’s impact on the law. The team will convert its research into guides for judges and law schools, detailing what current neuroscience technologies—particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—can and cannot reveal about the information in a person’s mind.


... Greely also believes that neuroscientific information may be unduly persuasive to people. Indeed, neuroscientists are no exception, judging by the controversy swelling in their ranks over a recent paper that alleges the preponderance of untenable “voodoo correlations” made by fMRI researchers.


Norman’s experiments have been able to distinguish between different recollection methods to the program; “mind-set” memory patterns look more like a person experiencing the event for the first time. If we can better tell when a witness is relying on semantic generation, they could be coached into the mind-set method, or potentially have their testimony weighed differently. Helping judges and juries improve such evaluations is an important part of the Law and Neuroscience Project, says Greely. This critical eye could be extended toward the law enforcement practices that happen before a trial begins. Psychological studies have shown the benefits of sequential double-blind lineups—by evaluating each person individually, witnesses are less likely to settle on an incorrect proxy—but few places have adopted them. Showing neurological mechanisms behind the improved accuracy could help tip the balance.