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Can A Machine Read Your Mind?

Publication Date: 
February 28, 2009
The Times (London)

Professor Henry T. Greely is quoted in the London Times in an article about the use of brain scans in legal proceedings and investigations:

Last spring, for example, an Indian court found a young woman guilty of murder based, in part, on evidence of “guilty knowledge” revealed by her brain waves. Aditi Sharma, 24, a Pune-based MBA student, was interrogated while wearing an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap similar to the one I used. It monitored her brain activity while she heard statements that were either neutral or described the killing of her former lover. Prosecutors claimed that the “brain fingerprinting” test showed how memory areas of her brain activated when she heard incriminating details.

Although an Indian government panel of scientists says this technique, Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature profiling (BEOS), should be ignored, its use in India is spreading. In January, Ravindra Kantrole, a Mumbai petty criminal, was convicted of being “the Beer Man”, a serial killer of seven victims, largely on brain-mapping evidence. Earlier this month, two priests and a nun were freed on bail in a murder case after BEOS tests showed “no memory of the killing”.


Hank Greely, a professor at Stanford Law School, sighs heavily as he considers how cod brain science may increasingly distort many court judgments. Greely is a pioneer of “neurolaw”, and his faculty has been awarded a $10 million grant to explore the legal and ethical implications of neuroscientific advances. He cites the case of Aditi Sharma as a prime example of what can go wrong. “It stinks,” he says. “The non lie-detection evidence was very weak. Then they threw in this ‘science’ as a trump card.

“We worry a lot that juries and judges are going to be way too impressed by fancy pictures of brain scans. But these are not photographs: they are computer-generated images of radio-wave information taken at a certain time and configured or manipulated in certain ways. Studies already show that people are more likely to give credence to a statement about the brain if it includes a picture of a brain scan, no matter how spurious it is.”

Greely is keen to stress that he’s no Luddite: “There may be some really good stuff that comes out of this technology,” he says. “We just need to make sure we use it only when we are ready, and when we have decided that it is socially and ethically OK to use it.

“With lie detection, I think it may be OK to use it when someone wants to undergo it to prove their innocence. It’s much harder to think of forcing someone to take a test. I don’t think that your employer or your spouse should be able to make you take a lie-detector test, or that you should be able to subject your kids to one.” He pauses, then adds, “But you know, that parent example is a lot harder – particularly if you have teenagers who you fear are misusing dangerous drugs. It’s complicated.”