Peering into the criminal mind

A revolution in investigative affairs?

The use of brain mapping in investigation, and most recently the acceptance of brain mapping reports as evidence by Indian courts has raised many eyebrows. Today’s New York Times has a report by Anand Giridharadas on this:

The Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test, or BEOS, was developed by Champadi Raman Mukundan, a neuroscientist who formerly ran the clinical psychology department of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bangalore. His system builds on methods developed at American universities by other scientists, including Emanuel Donchin, Lawrence A. Farwell and J. Peter Rosenfeld.

Despite the technology’s promise—some believe it could transform investigations as much as DNA evidence has—many experts in psychology and neuroscience were troubled that it was used to win a criminal conviction before being validated by any independent study and reported in a respected scientific journal. Publication of data from testing of the scans would allow other scientists to judge its merits—and the validity of the studies—during peer reviews.

“Technologies which are neither seriously peer-reviewed nor independently replicated are not, in my opinion, credible,” said Dr. Rosenfeld, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Northwestern University and one of the early developers of electroencephalogram-based lie detection. “The fact that an advanced and sophisticated democratic society such as India would actually convict persons based on an unproven technology is even more incredible.” [NYT]

The use of this technology for investigation should be of relatively lesser concern, especially when the alternatives are of the unpleasant sort. But Dr Rosenfeld does have a point, especially when it comes to admissibility of these reports for securing convictions.

It is difficult to understand why Mr Giridharadas’s report does not quote any Indian scientist on the subject. It leaves out an important point: on September 6th, The Hindu reported that “an expert committee studying the efficacy of brain mapping criminal suspects has concluded that it is unscientific and should be discontinued as an investigative tool and as evidence in courts.” Rakesh Maria, Mumbai police crime branch chief, has been quoted as saying ‘that while BEOS was a useful technique of examination, it couldn’t achieve conviction all by itself. “The technique needs to be corroborated with other evidence.”‘