My brain made me do it
Biology and freedom
Sunday 28 October, 2.00pm until 3.30pm, Lecture Theatre 1 Battle for Science

With the politics of behaviour in the ascendancy, there is increasing interest in what science can tell us about why people behave the way they do. The British government is funding the creation of the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners, with the express aim of training a ‘parenting workforce’ to provide science-based child-rearing advice to parents. In the USA, the MRI scanner and the neuroscientific community are entering the court room to give evidence about whether defendants can be regarded as being responsible for their alleged crimes. UK policymakers cite scientific ‘evidence’ to explain new interventions on everything from early years’ education to the alleged impact of school dinners on academic performance.  The science of nutrition now informs earnest discussions about how children’s diets improve their classroom behaviour, in order to justify policing lunchboxes and putting school meals at the top of the political agenda.  Studies of teenage brain development now regularly inform social debates about the impact of new technologies on young people.

But how much can science tell us about behaviour? Do scientific findings justify the government’s many interventions into the early years of children’s lives? Should neuroscience enjoy an exalted place in the courtroom? Are policies being developed because of genuine advances in scientific knowledge – or is science being (mis)used, perhaps in the place of political conviction, to justify policies?


Jeffrey Rosen
professor of law, George Washington University; author, The Supreme Court: the personalities and rivalries that defined America
Professor Raymond Tallis
fellow, Academy of Medical Sciences; author, philosopher, critic and poet; recent books include NHS SOS and Aping Mankind; chair, Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying
Professor Pierre Magistretti
professor of neuroscience, University of Lausanne; vice-chairman, European Dana Alliance for the Brain; co-author, The Biology of Freedom
Professor Steve Yearley
director, ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum
David Perks
founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory

 Produced by

Tony Gilland associate fellow, Academy of Ideas

What neuroscience cannot tell us about humanity, David Perks

 Recommended readings

Don't even think about lying
What began as a neurological inquiry in to why kids with ADHD blurt out embarassing truths may, via the fMRI scanner, end up forcing the legal system to define more clearly the inviolable boundaries of the self
Steve Silberman, Wired, 12 May 2007

A probe inside the mind of the shopper
Until recently MRI had been used only in clinics, now labaratory insights are being matched to the needs of marketing managers
Jerome Burne, Financial Times, 26 November 2003

Telling truth from lie in individual subjects with fast event related fMRI
The first quantitative estimate of the accuracy of fMRI in conjunction with a forced-choice paradigm in detecting deception in individual subjects
Daniel D. Langleben James W. Loughead, Warren B.Bilker, Kosha Ruparel, Anna Rose Childress, Samantha l. Busch and Ruben C Gur, Human Brain Mapping 26, 2004

"We live in a time where there is an understandable hunger for effective ways to expose evildoers, and when concern about privacy has been nudged aside by our desire for security and certainty. "Brain scans indicate":what a powerful phrase"
Margaret Talbot, New Yorker, 1 July 2007

The brain on the stand
'Neuroscience, it seems, points two ways: it can absolve individuals of responsibility for acts they've committed, but it can also place individuals in jeopardy for acts they haven't committed - but might someday'
Jeffrey Rosen, New York Times, 10 March 2007

A response to atheists, materialists
It is simply not possible for humaness to be reduced to the matter of the brain. For militant materialists their certainty remains a leap of faith
Bryan Appleyard, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 September 2007

recommended by spiked

Chaining black youth to the victim culture
Neil Davenport, 22 March 2007

Singer on ‘speciesism’: a specious argument
Helene Guldberg, 28 July 2005

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