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Nikolas Rose “Reading the Human Brain”

Rose, Nikolas 2016. Reading the Human Brain: How the Mind Became Legible. Body & Society 22(2): 140-177. DOI: 10.1177/1357034X15623363


[…] despite the many unresolved quandaries that haunt those debates, and the many criticisms that can be, and have been, levelled against them, this new ‘materialist’ ontology of thought is taking shape, not through a philosophical resolution of the age-old dilemmas, but through developments in technology. Notwithstanding the explanatory gap – the daunting gulf that exists between a knowledge of molecular events in the neurons of the brain and an explanation of how the mental events that are ‘subserved’ arise – and despite all the critiques – these technologies embody and enact the premise that the brain is the place where mental events are located and that there must, therefore, be material traces of such mental events in the brain itself. And if those traces exist, it must be possible – both in principle and now it seems in practice – to make them legible. (144)


[…] as proposed by Franz Joseph Gall, it [phrenology] entailed two theses with lasting impact on the sciences of mind and brain (Gall, 1810). First, that the brain was the seat of the mind. Second, that the brain was organized in such a way that different mental functions were located in specific areas. (144)


It appears that this is how the infamous Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature (BEOS) test is being used in India. There was much publicity when the BEOS test – a ‘guilty knowledge’ test developed by an Indian neuroscientist Champadi Raman Mukundan, which operates on the same principle as Farwell’s P300 method – was used in 2008 to convict Aditi Sharma for murder – giving her husband sweets laced with poison–on the basis of her ‘neuro-experiential knowledge’: it was claimed that characteristic brain patterns showing such knowledge were elicited during an

EEG examination when she heard statements concerning the act of poisoning. It was not her words that were used to convict her – she remained silent – but the evidence of the brain itself. (150)


There was rather less publicity when she was released on bail pending appeal, after the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) declared that brain scan evidence did not meet appropriate criteria of scientificity and could not be used in court. In 2010, in a ruling also considering the admissibility of evidence from the polygraph and from narcolepsy, the Indian Supreme Court ruled – largely on the grounds of the rights not to selfincriminate – that no individual can be forcibly compelled to take a lie detector test, whether a traditional polygraph or a neural lie detector – and that evidence from such tests was inadmissible in Indian courts. But according to Angela Saini, the BEOS test is still widely used in India, not in the courtroom but in the investigative process, where it has apparently induced numerous suspects to make confessions. (150)


The thesis that is beginning to acquire plausibility is that while deceitful words are cheap and easy, and bodies can be trained to deceive, the brain cannot lie. But from the lab to the real world is a rather longer and more difficult journey than the inventors suggest – for in the real world, innocent individuals being tested are awash with confusing and competing affects, the potentially guilty are alert to the need for countermeasures, and, at least as far as the law is concerned, each defendant must be judged as an individual rather than on the basis of probabilities (although this last proviso does not apply to those detained at borders on the basis of algorithms of riskiness). And what is a lie? For if a mistaken belief, genuinely held, is a lie, who among us is not a liar? We should not be surprised to find an emergent neuroethical discourse on the nature and limits of neural privacy (Farah et al., 2014; Langleben and Moriarty, 2013; Wolpe et al., 2005). (151)


For while both body and brain may rendered ‘readable’, in the materialist ontology of the person that is taking shape, the brain has the advantage over the body in being both a potentially legible surface of thoughts and intentions, and the potentially modulatable locus of those thoughts and intentions. In that respect, at least for those whose objective is control – whether that be for  security or therapy – legibility in itself is only a first step: reading out the messages from the brain leads to the hope that one might read back messages into the brain to modulate those thoughts and intentions themselves. (157)

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