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CMU profs use imaging to read minds

| Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, 9:30 p.m.

Neuroscientists at Carnegie Mellon University used enhanced brain imaging techniques coupled with sophisticated computers to read minds and identify emotions in controlled laboratory settings.

This week, a PBS special will examine the implications of such developments — which producer Graham Chedd calls “both troubling and tantalizing” — in the courtroom.

The two-part series, “Brains on Trial, with Alan Alda,” airs on PBS at 10 p.m. Wednesday and Sept. 18, revolving around a fictional convenience store holdup gone wrong and the trial that follows.

“Imagine not just replaying the videotape of what went on in the convenience store, but replaying the mental videotape of what went on in the person's mind. It is raising tremendously interesting issues,” said CMU professor Marcel Just.

The show focuses on the minds of jurors, the defendant, the judge and witnesses and examines the ethical and legal issues that emerging brain science might hold for the courts.

Legal experts and neuroscientists, including Just, weigh in during interviews with Alda. Just is featured on Sept. 18 in the segment “Deciding Punishment.”

“It is very easy to over-read this and get carried away with the notion that you can really see what is going on inside somebody's head,” Chedd cautioned. “And the critical issue is: ‘Can you see what was going on in someone's mind at the time of the crime?' We can't, but many researchers believe we will be able to do it within the next decade.”

Just, who directs the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging and consulted on the PBS special, said research is heading in that direction.

“The ultimate privacy is: ‘What were your thoughts?' The judicial system judges not only acts, but takes into consideration what is going through your mind when you act, and later, at sentencing, whether there is remorse,” he said.

He is encouraged that legal experts are weighing the implications of such developments.

Jane Campbell Moriarity, a law professor at Duquesne University, said courts permit the introduction of brain scans during the guilt phase of sentencing as evidence of impaired cognitive functioning. Moriarity was not involved with the PBS project but has written extensively about such issues.

She said a federal appeals court ruled last fall that brain imaging technology was not reliable enough to be admitted for purposes of lie detection.

Moriarity fears another court could take a different stand.

“I see the idea of lie detection while forcibly looking into someone's head as fraught with peril. I can think of all the ways this could be misused against people and how much power it would give the government,” she said.

For more information on “Brains on Trial,” visit brainsontrial.com.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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