Bioethics Blogs

Neuroscience in the Courtroom: An Attempt for Clarity

*Editor’s note: You can catch a lengthier discussion of this topic at our Jan 29th session of Neuroscience and Neuroethics in the News.

When people think about functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and the courtroom, many often think of mind reading or colorful images of psychopathic brains. Portable fMRI machines capable of reading our personal thoughts pop into our heads and arouse a fear that one day a neuroscientist could reasonably discern our deepest secrets through a brain scan. Despite recent scholarship that suggests a world filled with covert fMRI lie detection devices is far away (if ever attainable), I think further attention should be paid to how people think about neuroscience and interpret scientific information that draws on brain-laden language, particularly in the courtroom (Farah, Hutchinson, Phelps, & Wagner, 2014). This topic is of special interest to me as it is the focus of my undergraduate research thesis. I also think it should be relevant to neuroscientists, ethicists, and journalists as well because the way in which people interpret and understand aspects of the brain and human behavior is perhaps a consequence of how such information is portrayed to the public.

Photo from Ali, Liftshitz, & Raz, 2014

The seductive allure of neuroscience information has captivated many researchers as brain imaging and neural explanations begin to seep into the legal realm and fascinate the media (Jones, Wagner, Faigman, & Raichle, 2013). This idea—the seductive allure hypothesis—refers to the notion that people find neurological justifications of behavior to be a marker of a sound explanation for an action or tendency, regardless of the quality of the information (Weisberg, Keil, Goodstein, Rawson, & Gray, 2008; McCabe & Castel, 2008).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.