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Exploring the Impact of Brain Imaging on Criminal Justice

The 7th Annual MU Life Sciences and Society Symposium “Ethics and the Brain” will take place in March; best-selling author will discuss violence

February 25th, 2011

Story Contact: MU News Bureau, 573-882-6211,

COLUMBIA, Mo. ­—High-tech brain imaging can record the flow of blood in the brain, but what does this tell us about the human mind?  Can these images indicate if a person is more likely to commit a crime, or whether somebody is being truthful?  And if so, is it ethical to “read people’s minds” and use that information in the criminal justice system?  These questions and more will be pondered at the University of Missouri on March 19-20 during the 7th annual Life Sciences & Society Symposium, “Ethics & the Brain.”

Answering these questions requires more than science.  Experts in neuroscience, law, psychology, philosophy, anthropology and theology will convene on the MU campus to discuss what images, such as fMRIs, could reveal about human identity, free will, moral decisions, and honesty, and how such information should, or should not, be used. The symposium is free and open to the public.

“This year’s topic should intrigue everyone, because we are all curious about how our minds work, and we all should be concerned about accuracy and privacy issues that arise from trying to access our thoughts,” said Stefani Engelstein, director of MU’s Life Sciences and Society Program. “These questions have an immediate impact on society, so it’s important to involve the public in a discussion with scholars who study science, ethics, and the law.”

The keynote address will be delivered by Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard and a best-selling author of books such as “The Blank Slate.”  Pinker was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by “Time Magazine” in 2004.  He will present “A History of Violence” at the Missouri Theater at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 19.

Mizzou Advantage has been instrumental in creating opportunities to network with the most prominent scholars around the world during conferences.  The Life Sciences & Society Program has worked closely with Mizzou Advantage and a number of other sponsors and partners in organizing the annual symposium series. Through conferences such as this, MU brings internationally renowned researchers to campus and promotes collaboration and productive exchanges with MU faculty.

Affiliated events take place throughout February and March, and a full schedule, as well as registration information and a list of our partners, is available at:

Events take place in the Bond Life Sciences Center unless noted otherwise. The symposium schedule is as follows: 

Saturday, March 19

Adrian Raine, Chair, Department of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania
“Neurocriminology: Neuroethical and Neurolegal Implications” 10:30-11:30 a.m., Monsanto Auditorium 

The very rapid developments taking place in brain imaging science are creating an uncomfortable tension between our concepts of responsibility and retribution on the one hand, and our concepts of understanding and mercy on the other.

Adam Kolber, Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School
“The Experiential Future of the Law” 11:35 a.m.-12:35 p.m., Monsanto Auditorium

Pain, suffering, anxiety, and other experiences are fundamentally important to the law. Fortunately, technological advances in neuroscience are improving our ability to measure experiences and will do so more dramatically in what Kolber calls “the experiential future.”

Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary
“Why We Can’t Blame Our Neurons” 1:45-2:45 p.m., Monsanto Auditorium

The increasing ability of neuroscientists to describe brain processes associated with human decision-making and action rightly raises the worry about “neurobiological reductionism.” Will it turn out to be the case that all human thought and behavior are simply determined by the laws of neurobiology? Murphy will argue that in many cases the system as a whole has reciprocal effects on its own components.
Panel discussion: Adrian Raine, Adam Kolber, and Nancey Murphy 2:50-3:50 p.m., Monsanto Auditorium

Keynote Address: Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
“A History of Violence” 7-8:30 p.m., Missouri Theater (203 S. Ninth St)

Contrary to the popular impression that we are living in extraordinarily violent times, rates of violence have been in decline over the course of history. Pinker will explore how this decline could have happened despite the existence of a constant human nature, and why people systematically misjudge the historical trend.

Sunday, March 20

Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy, University of California – San Diego
“How the Mind Makes Morals”  9-9:55 a.m., Monsanto Auditorium

Self-preservation is embodied in our brain’s circuitry: we seek food when hungry, warmth when cold, and sex when lusty. In the evolution of the mammalian brain, circuitry for regulating one’s own survival and well-being was modified. Churchland will discuss how oxytocin, pain and pleasure impact our human interactions.

Joseph Dumit, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Science & Technology Studies, MIT
How to Do Things with Brain Images” 10-10:55 a.m., Monsanto Auditorium

Brain images in popular culture do and say a lot more than they were designed to do. In colorful and starkly different shapes, they often speak louder than the facts that underlie them, such as implying proof that there are different “types” of brains: women and men, smart and dumb, schizophrenic and sane, normal and abnormal. This discussion will question how brain scans are made to speak this way and why this should be thought of as an ethical problem for science, courts, and the public.

Jesse Prinz, Professor of Philosophy, City University of New York
“Getting Mad About the Bad: Emotion and the Moral Brain” 11:30 a.m.-12:25 p.m., Monsanto Auditorium

According to a long-standing tradition in philosophy, moral judgments are based on emotions; we decide whether something is wrong by seeing how it makes us feel. Neuroimaging studies add further support by confirming that moral judgments recruit brain structures associated with emotion. Yet some findings from neuroscience have been interpreted as providing evidence for a mixed view, which states that some moral judgments are emotionally based while others principally involve reason.

Panel discussion:  Patricia Churchland, Joseph Dumit, and Jesse Prinz  12:30-1:15 p.m., Monsanto Auditorium

Selected Affiliated Events:

“Controlling Heredity: The American Eugenics Crusade 1870-1940”: University of Missouri Libraries Exhibit
Ellis Library Colonnade, University of Missouri, starting March 4

This exhibit displays and interprets some of the seminal texts that embody the eugenics movement in the United States, detailing the response of the privileged to accelerated and chaotic social change. The exhibit explores two campaigns central to the eugenics movement: restriction of the immigration of the “unfit” into the United States and the forced sterilization of so-called degenerates who were American citizens.  

“Visions of Transparency: The Human Body and Social Order,” by Stefani Engelstein
March 8, 3- 4:00 p.m., Ellis Library Colonnade, University of Missouri

Film series with discussion: Ragtag Cinema

“Cold Souls,” with discussion led by David Beversdorf, MU associate professor of Radiology, Neurology, and Psychology    March 9, 5:30 p.m.

“In Search of Memory,” with discussion led by Nelson Cowan, director of the MU Brain Imaging Center and Curator’s Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences     March 16, 5:30 p.m.

Brain Awareness Week Poster Session: March 17, 2-5 p.m., Bond Life Sciences Center