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Legal systems, lies, and lotsa lotsa love

May 17, 2010


Far and away, the most gabbed about neuro story this past week was the argumentation to use fMRI lie-detection as evidence in a fraud trial in Tennessee. There were a surprising number of high rollers who threw their hat into this dialog, including several blog pieces from Science online following the debate’s play by play. Just to be clear, fMRI evidence has been used in court cases in the United States for sentencing of convicted criminals. But this is a landmark case to decide whether or not the current state of the art is admissible for helping to decide a verdict of guilt.

Personally, I’m convinced that the evidence of lie-detection provided by fMRI is superior to evidence gathered from polygraph analysis. (Polygraphs are estimated to be about 60% accurate.) And since polygraphs are permitted all the time in the court system, why not fMRI technology? Of course the technology still has a lot of room to mature. But I think the likelihood of accelerated development is very high once fMRI-based lie-detection reaches the tipping point of admissibility in legal trials.

To be clear: the fMRI is not determining guilt or lack thereof–it is still the jury who reaches this conclusion. The fMRI is just one more piece of evidence to consider and–like all other evidence–must be considered in the greater context of a constellation of evidences.

Probably the argument that is most curious to me in this process is that argument that fMRI should not be permitted in court because it violates privacy rights. Huh? I freely admit that I’m not a legal scholar. But this one just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s also a violation of rights for police to come into my apartment without proper legal permissions and search my belongings. But if proper legal action is followed, it’s certainly not a violation of privacy for my personal belongings to be searched by representatives of the law. I’m not clear why the situation would be so much different with a direct search of someone’s mental space: as long as proper restrictions are in place and due process is observed, I have no problem using technology to assist in the determination of cognitive action.

Here is a short list of some of the most heavy hitting media references for this unfolding story:


This article from Discovery News about the neuroscience of love was actually quite formative in remolding some of my concepts about the biological basis of amore. In short, it looks like there’s a general two-phase process that can be outlined in neurological detail (as opposed to insight gained exclusively from the experiential cycles of agony and ecstasy): phase 1 in which the brain is determining the fitness of other individual as a recipient of romantic love; and phase 2 in which the brain is poised to fall into sloppy, head-over-heels lovey goo for the objects of affection. I am totally in the tank for affective neuroscience.

Speaking of human relationships and love, the publication this week Melvin Konner’s epic book The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind by Harvard University Press promises to tie together a wonderful diversity of studies on childhood development into one cohesive volume. Although I purchased the book from this week, at a whopping 900+ pages, don’t expect me to be giving an in-depth review anytime soon.

If the fruits of the labors from the fields of social and affective neuroscience weren’t in themselves sufficiently convincing, Science online also gave a strong endorsement this week to the career opportunities quickly becoming available in the burgeoning field of social neuroscience. As someone who is definitely looking toward a career in this space, the article from Science put a little extra bounce in my step and excitement in my heart this week. The rapidly growing understanding of positive social dynamics seems like a very good thing for society at large.


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One Comment
  1. Wow, interesting story! I had no idea that fmri was admissible evidence. I guess you’re right though, it does beat the polygraph. However, I’m still worried that theres not yet enough research to definitively prevent type II errors –having people wrongfully convicted. Great article!

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