In the March issue of Scientific
American, brain-imaging expert John Gabrieli says that we can now use
functional magnetic-resonance-imaging (fMRI) technology to predict whether
depressed patients will benefit from certain therapies, whether smokers will be
able to quit, and whether criminals will land back in jail soon. But he leaves unanswered some questions
he raises—namely, if we find that we can reliably obtain this kind of
information, what should we do with it?
First, a brief explanation of what fMRI does. Using basically the same
giant-liquid-helium-cooled-magnet MRI technology that hospitals use, fMRI
detects changes in blood flow in the brain as certain regions become more
active while the patient is thinking about or viewing different things. For example, my niece is now a
psychology postdoc in Omaha, Nebraska, doing research on troubled adolescents
by putting them in an fMRI machine and having them play specially designed
video games, and watching what goes on in their brains as they play. According to Gabrieli, who is at MIT
and presumably knows what he’s talking about, fMRI studies have been able to
discriminate between depressed patients who will benefit from cognitive
behavior therapy, and those who won’t.
He is somewhat short on statistics of exactly how accurate the
predictions are, and admits that the technology has a way to go before it’s as
reliable as, say, a pregnancy test kit.
But just for the sake of argument, suppose tomorrow we had a
95%-accurate technology that was cheap enough to be widely used (neither of
which describes fMRI yet), and could tell us ahead of time the likelihood that
a convicted criminal would be back in jail in five years. What could we do with the information?
Given that one purpose of imprisonment is to protect the
public, you could argue that those criminals who are very likely to commit more
crimes should not be let out on the streets, at least until their fMRI scans
improve. And those whose fMRI
scans showed that they were at very little risk of committing more crimes might
have their sentences curtailed, or maybe we should just release them right
Say you are a member of a parole board, trying to decide
which prisoners should be granted parole.
Wouldn’t you be glad to have fMRI data on the prisoners that was shown
scientifically to be pretty accurate, and wouldn’t you feel more confident in
your decisions if you based them partly or even mostly on the fMRI
predictions? I think I would.
But what does this look like from the prisoner’s point of
view? Suppose you led a life of
crime and didn’t change your ways until you landed in jail, when you came to
yourself and turned over a new leaf.
(It happens.) You present
your sterling behavior record since then to the parole board, but then they
make you stick your head in a machine, and the machine says your anterior
cingulate cortex is just as unreformed as ever, and the board denies your
request for parole. Wouldn’t you
feel unfairly treated? I think I
What’s going on here is a conflict between two
anthropologies, or models of what a human being is. The psychologists who use fMRI studies to predict behavior
emphasize that people are physical structures that work in certain ways. And they have found strong correlations
between certain brain activities and subsequent behavior. They say, “People with this kind of fMRI profile tend to do that,” and they have statistics to
back up their claims. While they
admit there are such things as ethical considerations, they spend most of their
time thinking of their subjects as elaborate machines, and trying to figure out
how the machine works based on what they can see it doing in an fMRI scan. If you asked Dr. Gabrieli if he
believes in free will, he might laugh, or say yes or no, but he would probably
regard the question as irrelevant to what he’s doing.
The question of free will is crucial to a different model of
the human being, the one that claims people have rational souls. From William James on, the discipline
of psychology has tended to dispense with the concept of the soul, but that
doesn’t change the fact that each of us has one. I once knew a man who was a former drug user. Then he became a Christian, settled
down, started his own small business, married, and was leading a stable
upstanding life the last time I heard of him. I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect his anterior
cingulate cortex would send an fMRI machine off the charts. Nevertheless, by what psychologists
might call strength of will, and by what believers would call the grace of God,
he overcame his almost irrepressible desires to do bad things and developed new
We once thought it was reasonable to discriminate against
people simply because of the color of their skin. Black people couldn’t intermarry with white people, couldn’t
hold certain jobs, and were (and sometimes still are, regrettably)
automatically considered to be the most likely suspects in any criminal
investigation. We now know this
kind of discrimination is wrong.
But if fMRI machines, or their cheaper successors, ever
attain the accuracy that Dr. Gabrieli hopes for, we will face a choice just as
momentous as that faced by the nation when Dr. Martin Luther King challenged
the nation with his dream in 1963.
Will we decide to sort people into rigid categories based on physical
characteristics? Or will we treat
each human being as fully human, each fully deserving the right and opportunity
to change and make better decisions regardless of what an imperfect scientific
study says? Those are the kinds of
questions that we need to face before we inadvertently create a nightmarish
regime in which your rights depend on the physical characteristics of your
brain, just as much as they depended on the color of your skin in 1950.
Sources: John Gabrieli’s article “A
Look Within” appeared on pp. 54-59 of the March 2019 edition of Scientific American.