Western Herald – Lecture discusses brain and law
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Lecture discusses brain and law

By Tayler Cattera
Staff Reporter

It is the opinion of some people that the law has not yet caught up to science. Neurolaw studies the legal issues raised by recent neuroscience and the many ways that neuroscience should and should not be used in our legal system. These new developments raise many issues, including whether or not the law is too traditional in an age of modern discoveries.

Dr. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics at Duke University, was one of the keynote speakers at Western Michigan University’s philosophy conference on Friday.  He works in neuroethics with an emphasis on the neural basis of moral judgments and the implications of neuroscience for freedom and responsibilities.

“The human brain is truly amazing,” Sinnott-Armstrong said when describing the many different things the brain is capable of doing and how neuroscience is able to detect that.

This particular philosophy conference has been held for the past five years but this year had the best turnout. Over 50 people joined at the Fetzer Center to hear Sinnott-Armstrong explore three separate issues in particular: neural detection of consciousness, criminal responsibility and neuroprediction.

Neural detection of consciousness is the ability to detect whether a person who cannot communicate because of a condition such as being in a persistent vegetable-state, is conscious or not. If they are conscious, a new method known as the Laureys Method enables a PVS patient to communicate.

Laureys Method requires hooking the patient up to an EEG and asking them a series of questions. If the question is true, they would imagine themselves playing tennis for example, and if it were not, they would imagine themselves performing another action. Imagining these actions shows activity in different parts of the brain, therefore allowing people to know what the patient wants.

The ethical question Sinnott-Armstrong raised, though, was what if that patient wanted to die?

“It’s not irrational to want to die if you’re in this situation,” Sinnott-Armstrong said.

He does not suggest that we should kill any patient who first says they want to die. But after a series of questions and over a long period of time, if the patient still wants to die, he suggests that it would not be right to keep them alive.

“I think it would be morally wrong to treat a person without permission and contrary to explicit refusal,” Sinnott-Armstrong said. “It would be assault.”

Euthanasia, or assisted suicide, is illegal in every U.S. state besides Oregon, Washington and Montana. This begged the question, is it worse to let someone die who does not want to die? Or is it worse to not allow someone to die who wants to die?

Another issue Sinnott-Armstrong raised was whether or not people with a neural condition should be held criminally responsible for their actions. He used the example of a man with a brain tumor, who not only collected child porn, but solicited sex from his young stepdaughter. Once the tumor was removed, though, all of those actions stopped, perhaps proving that what he was doing was only caused by the tumor.

But according to the law, tumor or not, this man was guilty and should be punished.

“When the law engages in too much fiction making, it causes problems,” Sinnott-Armstrong said of the way the law sometimes works in these kinds of cases.

Currently, an estimated 350,000 offenders sitting in America’s jails and prisons have some sort of mental illness.

The last issue raised was neuroprediction, which uses neuroscience to improve predictions.

“Neuroprediction is not very reliable at present, except in a few cases, but it is likely to get much better in more areas soon,”  Sinnott-Armstrong said. “It could prevent a lot of dangers.”

A structural scan using multi-voxel pattern analysis (MVPA) can predict psychopathy in different people, including criminals who often recommit their crimes once they are out of jail.

The ethical question raised is whether the court should use this to decide if criminals should stay in jail or not, even past their sentence. The problems with using it is that mistakes could be made and the legal system could possibly start using and over abusing it.

Neuroscience has come a long way and with technology today, many things that were not possible in the past are becoming possibilities. When it comes to the law though, the matter at hand is if neuroscience will help or undermine our legal system. The question is yet to be answered.

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