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Study Raises Questions About The Role Of Brain Scans In Courtrooms

Publication Date: 
May 10, 2010
Discover Magazine

Professor Hank Greely, an expert in law and the biosciences, is quoted on the possible uses of fMRI brain scans in the courtroom:

A murder suspect sits in a quiet room with electrodes placed on her head. The prosecution reads out its narrative of the crime and the suspect’s alleged role in it. As she listens, the machines record her brain activity and reveal that she experienced aspects of the crime that only the murderer could have. Teased out by technology, her own memories have betrayed her. The verdict is guilty.

This scenario might seem far-fetched, but it’s actually what happened in an Indian trial that took place in 2008. The judge “explicitly cited a scan as proof that the suspect’s brain held “experiential knowledge” about the crime that only the killer could possess, sentencing her to life in prison.” There has been a smattering of attempts to use of brain-scanning technology in this way, accompanied by an uproar about the technology’s readiness.

But a new study by Jesse Rissman from Stanford University suggests that these promises are overplayed. Together with Henry Greely and Anthony Wagner, he has shown that brain scans can accurately decode whether people think they remember something, but not whether they actually remember something. And that gap between subjective and objective memory is a vast chasm as far as the legal system is concerned.