It’s All in the Mind Y’know: Uses and Misuses of Neuroscience in Law

In the Balance: Bringing Science to Justice with David Faigman

Thursday, May 21, 2015 • 7:00 p.m.

Exploratorium, Pier 15 (Embarcadero at Green Street), Bay Observatory Gallery

Included with museum admission.

Adults Only (18+)

“It’s all in the mind, y’know.”

—George Harrison, Yellow Submarine


In 1991, using powerful magnets and “sewer pipe, wire, epoxy, and finger tapping,”* a few research groups converged on the idea of utilizing the magnetic resonance properties of gray matter to image the active, thinking human brain—what the world now knows as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Since then, cognitive neuroscience has developed apace, with an explosion of ingenious techniques and sophisticated tools. Each new advance is greeted with a chorus of scholarly and popular speculation on its potential application to other arenas of human endeavor.

Discussions about the ‘promise of neuroscience’ are often tinged with a mixture of hope and fear. Nowhere is this ambivalence more evident than in the courts, as conjecture runs rampant about the legal impact of this research, stoked by claims that neuroscience may soon detect liars, objectively determine criminal responsibility, quantify suffering, and predict violence. But is neuroscience ready for courtroom use? Does brain imaging permit us to measure a person’s feelings, thoughts, and intentions? Can jurors understand and effectively weigh neuroscientific evidence?

Please join host David Faigman along with Dr. Kent Kiehl of the University of New Mexico and Professor Amanda Pustilnik of the University of Maryland and Harvard University to discuss the fascinating and wide-ranging challenges posed by the use of contemporary neuroscience in the courtroom.

*Peter A. Bandettini, “Twenty years of functional MRI: The science and the stories,” NeuroImage, v. 62, August 15, 2012.

Author and neuroscientist Dr. Kent Kiehl uses brain imaging techniques to understand mental illnesses, with special focus on criminal psychopathy, psychotic disorders, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse, and paraphilias. A professor at the University of New Mexico, Dr. Kiehl is a co-director of the nonprofit Mind-Research Network, founder of the neuroscience and law consulting group MINDSET, and an original member of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience.

Amanda Pustilnik is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Maryland School of Law and a Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience at the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital and The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. Her current research includes work on models of mind in criminal law, evidentiary issues presented by neuroscientific work on memory, and the role of pain in different legal domains.

David L. Faigman is the John F. Digardi Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and Director of the UCSF/UC Hastings Consortium on Law, Science, and Health Policy. An expert on the integration of scientific research into legal decision-making, Professor Faigman belonged to the National Academy of Sciences panel that investigated the scientific validity of polygraphs and is a member of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience.