Here's a scary thought - that we will soon accept that brain scans tell us something truthful about people!

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, September 15, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

Even Brain Scanners Don't Believe Brain Scans -- But One Day Soon We Will

Brain scanHere's a scary thought - that we will soon accept that brain scans tell us something truthful about people!

That actually does not occur in the United States today. You can't go into court and say: "He knew what he was doing - the consciousness part of his brain was lit up when he shot his wife," or "He's a psychopath because the moral judgment sector of his brain is underdeveloped."

The government agency that most traffics in MRIs of the brain is the National Institute on Drug Abuse, where they claim cocaine causes addiction because the drug floods the pleasure centers of the brain. But not one scientist claims they can tell if an individual is addicted by the effects of cocaine on the person's brain.

Rather, testing goes the other way - when a person shows a particular brain image from cocaine use, researchers quickly examine their drug usage patterns, to "prove" that the drug's impact on the brain "causes" addiction. But if the person says, "I was uncomfortable when I felt that ‘lit up'," or "I was afraid to use the drug regularly because of the impact it had on me," we say they are not addicted, no matter what their MRI looks like.

Well, hold your horses. In India, they are using such MRIs in court; India became the first country to convict someone of a crime because the prosecution claimed a brain scan revealed a defendant had specific memories of the murder in question, and was therefore guilty of the crime. The woman received a life sentence.

"Psychologists and neuroscientists in the United States, which has been at the forefront of brain-based lie detection, variously called India's application of the technology to legal cases ‘fascinating,' ‘ridiculous,' ‘chilling' and ‘unconscionable.'" That is, although the dominant reaction was that hocus pocus was being used to prove something for which there was not sufficient actual evidence, some Americans couldn't help but be fascinated by the prospect that, some day soon, we could be making similar claims here.

In the 2002 Tom Cruise-Steven Spielberg movie (from a Philip K. Dick story), "Minority Report," people are convicted and imprisoned for crimes which have not occurred, but which are foretold from examination of their genetic material (or something). As ridiculous as its seems to apply this to contemporary American jurisprudence, what if one day soon we rely on a scan to show that a person has a level of hatred and rage towards someone that is significantly associated with people harming a person? What if we decide this is a reliable enough indicator that such a crime will occur that we imprison the person before they actually perpetrate any such violence?

Ah, a brave, new world indeed - and coming to an MRI near you.