The robbery of a convenience store by a teenager high on cocaine goes horribly wrong, and he is now on trial for attempted murder. The case is fiction, but the trial – presided over by a distinguished US District Judge – is being conducted as if it were real. The unfolding trial is the backbone of an exploration by Alan Alda of the brains of many of the participants in a trial such as this, including the defendant, key witnesses, jurors and judge. By visiting and participating in some dozen experiments in brain science, Alda gains insights into how, and even what, the trial participants are thinking – insights that may one day influence how the criminal justice system operates, and in some cases are already doing so.Among the questions neuroscience is now addressing are these. Can brain scans tell: If a witness is lying? If someone remembers a face? How two people can see the same event yet remember it differently? If racial bias can be detected in a person’s brain? Why teenagers are so impulsive? Why drugs distort decision-making? What someone is feeling? If they have a moral flaw? If any of us really has free will? At a time when the incarceration rate in the US is some five times higher than most other nations (almost one in a hundred, as compared, for instance, with less than one in a thousand in Sweden), the question of whether the insights from neuroscience can help reform our criminal justice system is critical. In conversations with many of the nation’s leading neuroscientists, as well as with legal scholars, Alan Alda illuminates this question with his unique blend of curiosity and humor.
What if we could peer into a brain and see guilt or innocence? Brain scanning technology is trying to break its