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July 31, 2011

Synthetic Telepathy: The Army's Bold Plan

Many controversies on the table for neuroscience look at the emerging role of neuroscience, and how it will fit into our futures. This article by time magazine, '''The Army's Bold Plan to Turn Soldiers Into Telepaths''' hones in on the idea that the ways in which neuroscience could impact us are ever growing. Although at first neuroscience seems to find general roles in our emerging everyday lives, soon it will also fill in very specific corners and responsibilities; such as being used in the Army as a means of increasing our variability of weapons.

The article starts by bringing attention to the fact that the concepts associated with the future of neuroscience are just that- very futuristic. Many of the ways in which neuroscience and its findings could be applied to everyday life are concepts that have been talked about for generation but seem to be 'too far out' to be realistic and plausible. The foundations of these roles also need to be reestablished. For instance, the article points out that at first one might think a mind reading individual would be going through ones thoughts collecting memories and associations, when in fact the mind reader can be collecting information which will help protect him or help him protect a fellow solider. This idea is coined by the article as part of a U.S. Army project which is building "thought "helmets' (1).

The basis of synthetic telepathy is relying on research which is currently looking into which regions of the brain are responsible for the various processes of storing and processing thoughts. The overall goal of the US Army project would be to build a helmet which would be embedded with such technologies that can scan a brain similar to in the large scale fashion which are used for the research to identify these regions. The technology that would be embedded into the helmet would be able to carry out such functions as to be able to "target specific brain waves, translate them into words, and transmit those words wirelessly to a radio speaker or an ear piece worn by other soldiers" (1).

The idea and basis for the thought helmets and synthetic telepathy originated from the science fiction book Skylark of Space, a 1946 classic which was read by Elmar Schmeisser. The concepts and potential that neuroscience hold have been around forever, it is now taking the courage f individuals to speak up and realize that these ideas are plausible which is moving neuroscience both in a forward and controversial direction. Schmeisser began to progress with his idea of the thought helmet after a 2006 lecture when he realized the up and coming world of recording individual neurons and extracting signals from the surface of the brain. Although at first the army thought it to be hallucination that such an idea could work, they asked for evidence of its proof and Schmeisser and others are most definitely delivering results. After research results and new findings in the field, Schmeisser had won over many individuals and organizations and began working more in depth on the thought helmet for the Army.

Ultimately Schmeisser wanted to produce answers to big neuroscience questions which would in turn allow future researchers to capture complicate thoughts and ideas (1). He realized though that the rudimentary though helmet, capable of discerning commands, would be a valuable achievement and a step in the right direction to continue to gain supporters and funding for such a project. This point in the article paves way to where most neuroscience controversies come from- the ideas they are based on are as ever growing as the field. Many of the applications of neuroscience to real life open doors for more and more complex application to be found, and therein lies why the topics become so controversial.

Schmeisser himself points out that in actuality little is known about how the brain really functions, more so just about all the players that are present, contributing or not. "This project is attempting to make the scientific breakthrough that will have application for many things. If we can get at the black box we call the brain with the reduced dimensionality of speech, then we will have made a beginning to solving fundamental challenges in understanding how the brain works- and, with that, of understanding individuality" (1).

Posted by      Jamie S. at 9:37 PM MDT
  Anna Martin  says:
The issue with telepathy is that exclusive particular sorts of contemplations can be transmitted. It is by all accounts a Linear as opposed to Parallel sort flag - that resembles discourse is direct, time-wise, and pictures are "parallel" This is the reason numerous images or pictures when sent by means of clairvoyance, turn out looking increasingly like VERBAL DESCRIPTIONS of the picture as opposed to the first image itself.
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Brain Scans as Evidence

The spectrum of possibilities that neuroscience is taking into the world of law is both advantageous and dangerous. What sort of effects will this have when putting a murder suspect on trial? What sort of rights does he have and will the new technologies of neuroscience violate these rights in order to discover the truth behind what is going on? Questions such as this are what lawyers have to take into effect when deciding on whether or not to bring neuroscience into the court room. Not only can it be used for this purpose though, it can help someone plead the insanity defense, it takes into question if someone is willing or not to go through the testing in order to find out the truth, and also measure the maturity of the person on trial and capacity of what is going on.

In the article by Francis Shen and Owen Jones it looks further into what is going through the criminals mind in order to make them murder someone for example. Brain scanning gives the jury a way to look into their mind and see what has made them capable of preforming such an act. According to the administration of justice it is important to look at two things when looking into brain scanning. First what the brain was going through when performing the act. Basically, what was going on in the criminals mind to make them justify what was going to happen. Second it looks how the brain recollects these past events that have happened.

One of the tests used in this article to help tell if someone is lying or not is a fMRI. This stands for a functional magnetic resonance imaging. It is able to 'detect changes in hemodynamic properties of the brain as a subject engages in specific mental tasks (pg.865, Shen and Owen).' It breaks down which regions of the brain are doing what for a specific task and for how long they are working. But several issues have been discovered with this such as a person memorizing a lie and repeating it over and over that it becomes natural to say and therefore the fMRI won't pick up on any sort of difference between it and the truth. This has the possibility of being useful it court and was used in the case of United States v. Semrau.

The case of United States v. Semrau was one of the first cases in which brain scanning was used in order to help decide if Dr.Lorne Semrau was committing Medicare/Medicaid fraud. Over six years they stated that he was aware of inflating payments in order to receive approximately 3 million dollars in fraud. Around this time the first fMRI was being developed and it was used to tell if Dr. Semrau was claiming the truth when he said he did not willingly commit fraud. This test became later ruled out because it wasn't able to satisfy certain standards the judge had set.

As the advances in science continue, brain scanning will be able to lead into areas we have not yet discovered in the scientific realm of possibilities. The article goes into further detail of other challenges that neuroscience is being faced as it tries to enter into the world of law.
Posted by      Alexa M. at 5:27 PM MDT
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July 30, 2011

Do Criminals Commit Crimes- A Question for Neuroscience

For years criminal defense attorneys have been arguing over the objections of prosecutors that their clients are not guilty by reason of insanity, but scientific evidence now indicates that criminals might not be to blame for any of the crimes that they commit. While conclusive proof on this point would be welcomed by the prison population in the United States, this evidence, discussed by Michael Gazzaniga in his paper available at (, creates a whole host of potential problems for the criminal justice system in the United States. Specifically, if a criminal has no control over his own actions, should he be punished? If so, should the form of that punishment change? According to Gazzaniga, the current system of punishment is based on retribution. Would a system of rehabilitation be more appropriate? And does it even matter?

The whole criminal justice system, which has developed over hundreds of years and is modeled after the English common law system, is based on the concept that each individual is a rational actor that is responsible for his actions. However, evidence cited by Gazzaniga suggests that decisions are made before the actor becomes conscious of the decision. Gazzaniga suggests that this supports determinism, the view that our decisions are products of our circumstances rather than a product of our own free will. For me this evidence raises the question of whether there is a way to train our subconscious selves to make the correct decisions. Are we culpable for our subconscious decisions or are we slaves to them?

Additional evidence cited by Gazzaniga suggests that if certain parts of the brain are impaired, an actor can recognize a bad decision but cannot reject the bad decision.

Ironically, Gazzaniga claims that if criminals are not actually responsible for their crimes, then it is immoral to blame a criminal for his criminal or immoral behavior. If determinism really does rule the day, can we actually blame the blamers? If people are not responsible for their choices, then the blamers would not be any more morally responsible for assigning blame than the recipients of that blame. The implications of determinism are truly endless.

Gazzinga also points out the fact that criminals and schizophrenics can follow rules because they stop at red traffic lights. Clearly, there is some innate or developed ability to follow rules. If this is a developed trait, perhaps the criminal justice system can be used to enhance the development of this ability in criminals. Maybe neuroscience will discover the ways in which this ability can be enhanced and this will allow the criminal justice system to focus on rehabilitation rather than retribution. This would also not require as complete of change in the criminal justice system so a focus on this area could be very fruitful.

While Gazzaniga discusses the problem he does not offer any clear solution or conclusions. Indeed, his article (like my blog post) seems to raise more questions than answers. In the end, it is clear that if determinism becomes the accepted philosophy of the criminal justice system, that system will need to be completely rethought.
Posted by      Jessica S. at 10:25 PM MDT
Tags: law

Saying No to the Death Penalty: The Excuses of Adolescence

Most adolescents spend their time going to school. But some adolescents spend their time murdering people.
Most adults spend their time working. But some adults also spend their time murdering people. In many states, these adults are often executed.
So where, and more importantly, with what reasoning, do we draw the line between adolescent and adult? And, especially in cases of murder, what should that line mean?

Usually in cases such as this we want to turn to scientific evidence. But in issues of law it is never that simple.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has made many rulings regarding the death penalty, there have been two prominent cases regarding juveniles. Thompson vs. Oklahoma (1988) outlawed the death penalty for individuals who were under sixteen when a crime was committed, and Roper vs. Simmons (2005) outlawed the death penalty for individuals who were under eighteen when a crime was committed. With Roper vs. Simmons, the courts finally had some scientific data (although still not completely conclusive) to work with. But the issue of the death penalty is far from over. That ruling was 5-4.

"Crime, Culpability, and the Adolescent Brain" is an article written for "Science" in 2004 by Mary Beckman, just before the Roper vs. Simmons decision was made. It clearly outlines the neurological data compiled to support the case of Christopher Simmons.
Although there is more data relevant to the case now, this article is particularly interesting because we can look at the 2005 ruling that followed.
His case was quite grisly, involving robbing, tying up, and throwing a woman off of a bridge.

The defense presented the argument that the death penalty was cruel and unusual because the defendant's brain was not functionally identical to that of an adult. The article states, "Structurally, the brain is still growing and maturing during adolescence, beginning its final push around 16 or 17" (Beckman, 2004). Neural connections of adulthood are shaped during the teen years, involving a decrease in gray matter and an increase in white matter. Perhaps the most significant data presented was that on frontal lobe maturation. There is an apparent, "wave of brain change moving forward into the front of the brain", seen using MRIs in an NIMH study (Beckman, 2004). This is integral to the case because the frontal lobe is linked to impulse control. Erratic behavior is also more prevalent in adolescents; "the brain switches from relying heavily on local regions in childhood to more distributive and collaborative interactions among distant regions in adulthood" (Beckman, 2004).

Arguments for and against the death penalty always seem to be a muddled combination of personal belief, religion, experience, science, and history. And to complicate the matter, we're talking about some very grisly crimes. In the 2005 opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest" (Kennedy, 2005). There is no doubt that the scientific evidence presented had an effect on the ruling. But, unfortunately, it is not likely that such evidence will ever provide us with an infallible answer. The 2004 article ends with a quote from neuroscientist Elizabeth Sowell of UCLA, "We couldn't do a scan on a kid and decide if they should be tried as an adult" (Beckman, 2004). Six years later we have more data, but this remains true.

Beckman, Mary. "Crime, Culpability, and the Adolescent Brain." AAAS, 30 July 2004. Web. 30 July 2011. .
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