We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

… and then prosecute you for it. This, on the science and psychology of eyewitness testimony, from Seed Magazine:

This February, 10 years after his death in prison, Timothy Cole was posthumously exonerated for a rape he did not commit. Before his trial, a victim picked him out of a series of photographs, but her memory may have been skewed by the fact that his image was the only one in color. Cole’s case is not an isolated one. The Innocence Project, a legal advocacy group that worked on his behalf, has cleared the names of more than 175 people who were wrongly convicted due to the unreliability of human memory.

Psychological research continues to undermine the trust given to eyewitnesses’ ability to accurately remember the details of a crime, and we’re becoming increasingly aware of how often their memories are unconsciously manipulated. Paired with a growing interest in the field of neurolaw, which examines the intersection of neuroscience and legal systems, the desire for tools that can objectively assess the accuracy of memories is palpable. But is it possible?

Recently, the stakes for answering that question have been raised. Last fall in the Indian city of Pune, a woman was convicted of murder on the basis of a brain scan that purported to show that she remembered putting arsenic in her husband’s food. This controversial case piqued the interest of Hank Greely, a law professor at Stanford University who specializes in the legal implications of neuroscience. “We want to figure out how plausible it actually is that you could tell if someone has a memory or not,” he says. “It’s certainly plausible enough to explore it.”

Greely is exploring that question and many others as the codirector of Stanford University’s Law and Neuroscience Project. Awarded a $10 million MacArthur Foundation grant in late 2007, this group of about 40 neuroscientists, lawyers, and philosophers is making the first concerted effort to examine neuroscience’s impact on the law. The team will convert its research into guides for judges and law schools, detailing what current neuroscience technologies—particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—can and cannot reveal about the information in a person’s mind.

Read the full article…

One comment

  1. To call this both "creepy" and "dangerous" would be understating the case. On the one hand, this is reminiscent of the film "Minority Report", where the police could predict that someone would commit a crime before it happened and then arrest the soon-to-be perpetrator. On the other hand, this is just simply dangerous. It is certainly true that human memory is fallible, but the problem with the evangelists quoted in the Seed article is that, well, they are evangelists of fMRI: they will predict the benefits, the wonders. And it seems the author of the piece falls into this trap. If human memory is fallible, so too are the methods to probe it, as the Princeton psychologist notes. The author of the article makes it sound like human memory is always fallible in criminal trials and proceedings. if that were the case, millions upon millions of trials would end up in wrongful convictions. That they don’t tells us that the human mind is not quite the crap shoot the article would have us believe. Moreover, the logic of the article is somewhat faulty. The article starts with the tragic story of Timothy Cole, who died in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. He was convicted in large part because a witness picked him out of a photo lineup, his picture was the only one in colour. The rest were in black & white. Certainly, there are psychological reasons why the colour picture would stand out more than the b&w. But there is a long, long way to travel between that and the experiments the article describes. The logical connection between the Cole case and Lisa Hasel’s experiments simply does not exist.

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