Boing Boing 

Subjective experience and the law: should fMRI evidence of high punishment tolerance affect sentencing?

Brooklyn Law School professor Adam J. Kolber's paper "The Experiential Future of the Law" was recently published in the Emory Law Journal. The paper asks whether (and when) the law will take account of fMRIs and other tools that create quantitative indicators of subjective experience -- that is, what happens when someone claims that they can tell you how much pain they've experienced, and compare that to the pain that someone else in the same situation might experience?

Kolber points out that this question is relevant to crime and punishment, whether you're someone who wants to be sure that the person who committed the crime is punished in a way that's commensurate with the pain he caused; or whether you believe that punishments should be calculated to be bad enough to deter criminals.

Subjective experience is key to both questions, but the legal issues are sure to be thorny. If you're being sued for "pain and suffering" after your negligence caused someone's broken nose, should you be allowed to introduce evidence showing that the victim has an unusually high pain threshold and ask the jury to reduce the damages accordingly? Should state prosecutors be able to show that a convicted criminal has a high tolerance for incarceration and ask for a longer sentence to ensure that he suffers as much as a comparable criminal with a lower tolerance and a shorter sentence?

In this Article, I describe some of the ways in which new technologies are shifting the way we measure experiences and will continue to do so more dramatically over the next thirty years. I discuss in general terms how new technologies may improve our assessments of physical pain, pain relief, emotional distress, and a variety of psychiatric disorders. I also discuss more particular applications of such technologies to assess whether: (1) a patient is in a persistent vegetative state, (2) a placebo treatment relieves pain, (3) an alleged victim has been abused as a child, (4) an inmate being executed is in pain, (5) an interrogatee has been tortured, and others.

My central claim is that as new technologies emerge to better reveal people's experiences, the law ought to do more to take these experiences into account. In tort and criminal law, we often ignore or downplay the importance of subjective experience. This is no surprise. During the hundreds of years in which these bodies of law developed, we had very poor methods of making inferences about the experiences of others. As we get better at measuring experiences, however, I make the normative claim that we ought to change fundamental aspects of the law to take better account of people's experiences.


(Image: fMRI one, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from twitchcraft's photostream)

Everybody loves cephalopods

Everybody loves cephalopods—that class of animals containing octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish. But why? What makes these non-fluffy, non-mammals so appealing?

Read the rest

Free/open library to talk to brain-computer interface

Want to hack on the Emotiv brain-computer interface without shelling out $750 for a SDK to get access to the raw EEG data? Enter Emokit, an open source, cross platform library that does just that. (Thanks, Daeken, via Submitterator!)

Important fMRI study literacy tips

I love a fMRI story as much as the next person -- there's something addictive about discovering what's going on in your brain as you do and think different things, and how they relate to one another. The reality is not as neat, however. Neuroimaging studies often involve a hypothetical average brain made by studying lots of brain scans, and come to conclusions that are even now the subject of hot debate. Here are four important caveats to consider when reading about fMRI studies (click through for full list):
1. "The Performance Burden" If neural activity is found to differ between groups or conditions, you can't necessarily make inferences about differences in neural information processing - this could reflect behavioral differences alone. For example, if younger children perform worse than older children but also recruit a few different regions, those neural regions might be operating in exactly the same way across ages (e.g., processing errors) - there's just more errors in the younger group! Even with similar levels of performance there's the possibility that children of different ages are using different strategies, different amounts of mental effort, or are differentially reacting to the closed, loud, and claustrophobia-inducing space that is an fMRI scanner...
4 Things to Keep in Mind When Reading fMRI Studies

(Image: fMRI one, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from twitchcraft's photostream)

Ghosts in My Head: story about the neuromarketing end-times

Last April, I wrote about how the Science Fiction Writers of America's Grievance Committee got a magazine to pay me half of what it owed me for a story it had commissioned, but then offered a bogus contract for.

The good folks at Subterranean Press bought the right to publish the story for the other half of the money I was owed, and even bought the lovely illustration that Dave McKean did for the story.

The story is out in the current issue, and online as well. It's called "The Ghosts in My Head," and it's about the end-times of neuromarketing:

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to begin by thanking you for not lynching me.

You laugh, but I'm not joking. Not entirely. There was a time when it was a tossup as to who would string me up first: the authors, the copyright lawyers, the military, or the neurologists. There was a time when it was inconceivable to me that I would be feted by a distinguished crowd such as yourself, in my heels, tights, and a dress, gifted with a fine rubber-chicken banquet. There was a time when I contemplated plastic surgery and a move to the ass-end of remotest Imaginaristan.

I didn't set out to destroy narrative, reshape the law, and invent sixth-generation warfare. I set out to do something entirely slimier: I set out to create a genuine science of persuasion. Simply put, I set out to instrument the human brain and to discover where our representation of the other lives.

The fMRI was such a wonderful toy in those days. We were like Leeuwenhoek at his eyepiece, uncovering the secret world that had ever existed right before our eyes. Finally, neuroscience transitioned to a real science, a muscular, macho quantitative science, no longer a ghetto of twinkle-eyed Oliver Sackses, reliant on keen observations of human behavior. Finally, we could abolish empathy and retreat to the comfortable remove of empiricism as delivered on the screen of an instrument.

Fiction: Ghosts In My Head By Cory Doctorow

Kitten neuroscience


Hug Machine (via Neatorama)

PopSci article on "mind reading"

I wrote an article in the February issue of PopSci about visual cortex neuroscientists who are figuring out how to read our thoughts.