This Is Your Brain on Science…and Justice

By Nathan Nye

KIE Prof Walter Sinnot Armstrong sits on a panel discussing the PBS series, Brains on Trial

When I told my friends that I was watching a PBS documentary called Brains on Trial, the reaction I consistently got was, “What does that mean?”

“Are the brains on trial?”

“So it’s a courtroom full of brains?”

These were of course jokes, but they reveal an interesting truth—ironically, most of us don’t think about our brains very often.

As a disclaimer, I am not a scientist. My understanding of neurology is as vast as my knowledge of astrophysics, which is to say, infinitesimal. However, it’s impossible not to absorb a few basic facts if you’ve been in the education system for 17 years and have access to the Internet­—the brain is the unit of the body that creates both function, and the idea of self (this is as far as my knowledge goes). However, we only rarely consciously consider this intersection of anatomy, neurology, and chemistry when creating our idea of our own and other’s personhood.

Which brings me back to Brains on Trial, a two part series, which began last night on PBS. I was excited to watch not only because it’s hosted by Alan Alda (Arnie Vinick is the only Republican I’ve considered voting for), but because KIE professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong had a significant hand in helping shape the content of the program. The basic idea is that each part will explore ways in which MRI technology could be used to determine guilt or innocence in a courtroom.

What struck me watching Alan Alda exploring the ways in which MRI could be used in the criminal justice system was the cautious approach all of the researchers took. No one posited this technology was always accurate or appropriate for court proceedings. Why? Because as one expert said early on, when we lend scientific weight to something, juries can accept it as the only version of the truth, when the process behind the science is often more complicated. Which got me thinking: How do we think about guilt, science, and our brains?

Scientific evidence isn’t always available or reliable. Since the dawn of forensic evidence (accelerated by the ever-popular police procedural TV drama), we’ve considered those admissions to be hard and fast, when really; there is room for error as proven by many stories and documentaries. We’re more comfortable with what is generally considered to be objective evidence than eyewitness accounts and police reports.

However, this kind of thinking is the same thing that keeps researchers from introducing MRI into the courtroom. They’re afraid that people will cling to this evidence when, as the documentary shows, it’s nowhere near 100% accurate. The entire documentary is fascinating and led me to the conclusion that justice is often more art than science, but that doesn’t mean science shouldn’t have a role in the system.

Check your local listings to find out when Brains on Trial is on and sit down for a stimulating ride.