Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Trouble with Brain Scans

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Trouble with Brain Scans

Article excerpt

There's a worrying problem with the way neuroscience made the headlines at the end of last month. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, had looked at the electrical signals generated in the brains of patients listening to speech. From those signals, they were able to infer some of the words being heard. Such work may one day help us listen to the thoughts of comatose or locked-in patients. So what's the problem? It will add to the unfounded faith in scientists' ability to read minds - a ticking time bomb for the legal system.

Research has shown that people are much more likely to believe a statement prefixed with the phrase "Brain scans indicate ..." That has been true even when the statements were obviously scientifically flawed. It was also true for neuroscience students who should have known much better.

Things are made even worse with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, pretty pictures that look like they contain much more data than they actually do. These differentiate the relative amounts of blood flow in the brain. The differences are generally displayed on "false-colour" pictures: like a Tube map, the colours are arbitrary and are used just for contrast; they are not an absolute measure of anything. But they look ever so significant.

That would explain why in 2009, a defence team in the US tried to use fMRI scans to convince a jury to reduce the sentence of a convicted rapist and murderer. Brian Dugan had confessed to the 1983 abduction, rape and murder of a ten-year-old, Jeanine Nicarico. He was already serving a life sentence for two other murders and faced the death penalty for this crime. With the aid of KentKiehl, an expert on psychopathy at the University of New Mexico, the defence team showed the jury scientific evidence derived from fMRI scans. The evidence, according to the defence, showed Dugan to be a psychopath. …

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