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Review: 'Brains on Trial' on PBS

September 12, 2013|By Robert Lloyd, Times Television Critic
  • Alan Alda hosts the PBS special "Brains on Trial," which looks at the recent research into neuroscience in the framework of a mock trial.
Alan Alda hosts the PBS special "Brains on Trial," which looks… (Michael J. Lutch )

"Brains on Trial," Thursday and Sept. 19 on PBS, offers a two-part look at "how brains work when they become entangled with the law." That is not the John Agar 1950s sci-fi flick it might first sound like, but a look at how recent research into neuroscience and brain mapping changes our understanding of basic questions of human reliability, memory and bias among witnesses, juries and judges.

These epistemological problems, pondered by philosophers since time immemorial, are no less difficult today; if anything, they are complicated by new knowledge. But the new knowledge is interesting, anyway.

The gimmick here, and it is one, is that a fictional crime (a convenience-store robbery, with a shooting) is being hashed out in a real courtroom with real lawyers and a real judge. (The defendant and the witnesses are actors.) Part one covers the "guilt," or trial portion, and the malleability and fallibility of what we imagine we know we have witnessed; part two moves on to the sentencing, issues of culpability and the meaning of justice.

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Your guide is Alan Alda, who would not lie to you (intentionally) -- and would tell you if he were (and was aware of it). The erstwhile Hawkeye Pierce (icon of groovy integrity), and host as well of the PBS series "Scientific American Frontiers," Alda confers with legal minds and scientists to consider the ramifications of a possibly near future in which computers will read your mind (they already can, a bit, though they are liable to mistake Salma Hayek for the Mona Lisa) or expose, like a futuristic phrenologist, the likelihood of what used to be called a criminal mentality.

Raised also are issues of free will versus biological predisposition -- what does responsibility mean to a person whose brain has a poor grasp of the concept -- and also of the privacy of one's own thoughts, and what the 5th Amendment might have to say about that.

There is a corollary look at the physically immature teenage brain -- the accused in our (well-improvised) mock trial is just over 18 -- impulsive and lacking in self-control. The feeling of peer pressure is also a physiological fact, as is the quicker maturation of the female brain -- something you always felt to be true, but now can state with laboratory confidence.


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