Thursday, December 28, 2006

Actions speak louder than brain images.

There is growing concern over the pseudoscientific use of brain imaging to predict behaviors or assign a character type. Apoorva Mandavilli writes a short essay on this topic in the Dec. 7 issue of Nature Magazine.

"Can brain scans of a racist, liar or psychopath accurately tell whether that person will persecute, fib or kill? No, say experts in the ethics of neuroscience, who are increasingly concerned that such images will be used to make dangerous legal or social judgements about people's behaviour. They say it is time for scientists, lawyers and philosophers to speak up about the limitations of such techniques....interpreting brain scans, and correlating them to actions, is inaccurate at best. All we can really gain from such studies is a more nuanced understanding of behaviour...studies of behavioural or physical responses — for example, a person's reaction to different races in real life — should trump imaging every time...The legal and moral claims being made[ from imaging studies involving very few people] are far too extensive."

" In a landmark case in the US Supreme Court in March 2005, several leading scientific groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Mental Health Association, filed briefs to support the premise that teenagers are less rational than adults.

The data included a brain-imaging study showing that the prefrontal cortex, which governs impulse control and reasoning, develops late in adolescence (see Nature 442, 865–867; 2006), and could explain some irrational aspects of teenage behaviour."

"Many groups thought this study could help rule against the death penalty. But although the court ruled against the death penalty for those younger than 18, it chose not to cite the brain-imaging study, relying instead on behavioural studies that showed adolescents are more impulsive, more vulnerable to peer pressure and more affected by stress."

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