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  NEUROSCIENCE FOR POETS (AND LAWYERS, AND ECONOMISTS…)

In 2008, when Indian police accused a 24-year-old woman named Aditi Sharma of poisoning her fiancée, investigators placed 32 electrodes on her head and read aloud their version of the events leading up to the crime. The electrodes recorded the inner workings of her brain, which were computer-processed into a series of images purporting to distinguish whether Sharma had “experiential knowledge” of the events or had merely heard about them. Prosecutors submitted the scans as evidence in court, where the judge endorsed them as proof of Sharma’s guilt, convicting Sharma of murder.

Two years earlier, a group of American researchers and entrepreneurs used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the impact of Super Bowl advertisements on the brains of some viewers. (Memo to FedEx: that “Caveman” spot was repulsive.)

And during the run-up to the last American presidential election, The New York Times ran a Sunday op-ed by some of the same people, who now claimed to have used fMRI to unravel the mysteries of how voters viewed the major candidates. Accompanied by the seeming authority of colorful brain scans, the article revealed that swing voters either loved or hated John Edwards, viewed Mitt Romney with anxiety, and were “battling unacknowledged impulses” to like Hillary Clinton.

“I suspect that most of the New York Times-reading cognitive neuroscientists of the world spent some of their Sunday morning grousing to their breakfast companions about junk science and the misapplication of functional brain imaging,” Martha Farah wrote the next day in a blog post. “Having just finished my own grousefest, I would like to undertake a slightly more constructive task–distinguishing among what I consider to be good and bad reasons for skepticism about the [op-ed authors’ conclusions], and suggesting a way to validate this sort of work.”

In a nutshell, that’s Farah’s goal for Penn’s new Center for Neuroscience and Society, which draws its faculty from the schools of Arts and Sciences, Medicine, Law, and Engineering and Applied Science. In recent years, neuroscience has become increasingly relevant to fields from economics to political science to criminal law. Yet while brain imaging and other neuroscience tools can provide insights into what makes people tick, they’ve also proven to be rich with potential for misinterpretation and overstated claims.

“Our goal is to take non-scientists and equip them with enough understanding of neuroscience that they can work with it intelligently and confidently,” Farah said this summer. “The idea is to improve the speed with which neuroscience can be taken up by these different professions, and improve the quality of the work being done.”

The center’s inaugural endeavor was to host “Neuroscience Boot Camp,” a weeklong crash course attended by a few dozen lawyers, journalists, academic economists, political scientists, anthropologists, and a novelist. By the time they broke for a cocktail social halfway through, the participants were able to discuss critiques of the examples above with remarkable fluency. Cognitive enhancement was also a topic hot on everyone’s lips.

In addition to Farah and Anjan Chatterjee, the center’s leadership includes associate director Stephen Morse, the Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law as well as a professor of psychology and law in psychiatry at Penn. Joe Powers, a psychologist who has worked in the non-profit and pharmaceutical sectors, is executive director.

“We are fortunate at Penn to have the largest and most accomplished group of scholars anywhere in the world working on issues of neuroscience and society,” Farah said. “Every sphere of life in which the human mind plays a central role will be touched by these advances.”
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Last modified 10/28/09