What should the future look like for brain-based pain measurement in the law? This is the question tackled by our concluding three contributors: Diane Hoffmann, Henry (“Hank”) T. Greely, and Frank Pasquale. Professors Hoffmann and Greely are among the founders of the fields of health law and law & biosciences. Both discuss parallels to the development of DNA evidence in court and the need for similar standards, practices, and ethical frameworks in the brain imaging area. Professor Pasquale is an innovative younger scholar who brings great theoretical depth, as well as technological savvy, to these fields. Their perspectives on the use of brain imaging in legal settings, particularly for pain measurement, illuminate different facets of this issue.
This post describes their provocative contributions – which stake out different visions but also reinforce each other. The post also highlights the forthcoming conference-based book with Oxford University Press and introduces future directions for the use of the brain imaging of pain – in areas as diverse as the law of torture, the death penalty, drug policy, criminal law, and animal rights and suffering. Please read on!
The recent meeting at Harvard on neuroimaging, pain, and the law demonstrated powerfully that the offering of neuroimaging as evidence of pain, in court and in administrative hearings, is growing closer. The science for identifying a likely pattern of neuroimaging results strongly associated with the subjective sensation of pain keeps improving. Two companies (and here) recently were founded to provide electro-encephalography (EEG) evidence of the existence of pain. And at least one neuroscientist has been providing expert testimony that a particular neuroimaging signal detected using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is useful evidence of the existence of pain, as discussed recently in Nature.
If nothing more is done, neuroimaging evidence of pain will be offered, accepted, rejected, relied upon, and discounted in the normal, chaotic course of the law’s evolution. A “good” result, permitting appropriate use of some valid neuroimaging evidence and rejecting inappropriate use of other such evidence, might come about. Or it might not.
We can do better than this existing non-system. And the time to start planning a better approach is now. (Read on for more on how)
By Frank Pasquale, Professor of Law, University of Maryland Carey School of Law
Many thanks to Amanda for the opportunity to post as a guest in this symposium. I was thinking more about neuroethics half a decade ago, and my scholarly agenda has, since then, focused mainly on algorithms, automation, and health IT. But there is an important common thread: The unintended consequences of technology. With that in mind, I want to discuss a context where the measurement of pain (algometry?) might be further algorithmatized or systematized, and if so, who will be helped, who will be harmed, and what individual and social phenomena we may miss as we focus on new and compelling pictures.
Some hope that better pain measurement will make legal disability or damages determinations more scientific. Identifying a brain-based correlate for pain that otherwise lacks a clearly medically-determinable cause might help deserving claimants win recognition for their suffering as disabling. But the history of “rationalizing” disability and welfare determinations is not encouraging. Such steps have often been used to exclude individuals from entitlements, on flimsy grounds of widespread shirking. In other words, a push toward measurement is more often a cover for putting a suspect class through additional hurdles than it is toward finding and helping those viewed as deserving.
Of Disability, Malingering, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Disutility (read on for more)
As someone who has been greatly concerned about and devoted much of my scholarship to legal obstacles to the treatment of pain, I applaud Professor Pustilnik for increasing attention to the role of neuroimaging in our efforts to understand our experience of pain and how the law does or does not adequately take into account such experience. Pustilnik has written eloquently about this issue in several published articles but her efforts to bring together scientists, medical experts, legal academics, and judges (see also here) deserves high praise as a method for illuminating what we know and do not know about pain and the brain and to what extent brain imaging can serve as a diagnostic tool or an external validator of pain experience.
In this post, I discuss how DNA testing serves as a precedent for how to develop responsible uses of new technologies in law, including, potentially, brain imaging for pain detection. The ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of DNA research and testing were integral to developing national protocols and rules about DNA. Brain imaging of pain needs its own ELSI initiative, before zealous adoption outpaces both the technology and the thinking about the right guiding principles and limitations.
The idea of brain images serving as a “pain-o-meter” to prove or disprove pain in legal cases is clearly a premature use of this information and likely an over simplification of the mechanisms of pain expression. However, the potential for an objective diagnostic tool or indicator of the pain experience is something that lawyers representing clients in criminal, personal injury, workers comp or disability cases may find too attractive to resist and attempt to have admitted in the courtroom. This state of affairs brings to mind the ways in which lawyers have attempted to use genetic test results, initially obtained for medical purposes, in litigation. (Read on for more about ELSI in DNA and several national pain initiatives that could adopt the Human Genome Project and DNA ELSI model).
Earlier this month the Supreme Court of New South Wales ruled that an individual who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the result of an airplane crash could recover damages under the Montreal Convention. The case was important because many courts have previously ruled that PTSD, absent any other “bodily injury,” was not covered by the bodily injury provisions of the international agreement.
The case is illustrative of the way in which courts across the world continue to find a meaningful distinction between “physical” (or “bodily”) injury/pain and “mental” (or “emotional”) injury/pain. If you want an example closer to home, pull out your auto insurance policy and scan for the phrase “bodily injury.” Auto insurance cases sometimes include disagreement about whether mental injuries are considered bodily.
I’m on the record as saying this traditional physical/emotional distinction no longer holds up because substance dualism is no longer a viable theory. If neurons and glia cells are physical (and last I checked they were), then emotions and emotional pain must be physical too. But that doesn’t mean that the law has to treat all pain the same. Even if everything is physical, law may – for a variety of good reasons – choose to differentiate amongst them. For instance, do we want to understand assault (which is the infliction of “bodily injury”) to include the infliction of emotional pain? Maybe, but it’s not so cut and dry.
A potential difficulty, but also an opportunity, relating to using neuroimaging evidence in legal cases arises from the difficulty brain researchers have in separating emotional and physical pain. We know that pain and emotion are tightly linked. In fact, “emotion” is in the very definition of pain. The IASP definition of pain is: “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” Yet, the legal system deals with “physical” versus “psychiatric” versus “emotional” pain in different ways.
Chronic pain is associated with anxiety, depression, and stress. These factors can exacerbate the pain, and pain can exacerbate them. Pain’s sensory and emotional components connect in a “feed-forward” cycle. It may not be possible to entirely separate the sensory and emotional components of pain, biologically or experientially. But it might be necessary for the purposes of legal cases, as important areas of law create sharp distinctions between physical and emotional, or body and mind.
Neurolaw includes some fascinating issues that lack any practical legal significance – for example whether we should consider anyone responsible for anything they do, given that all behavior is physically caused by brain processes. It also includes some legally important issues that lack intellectual juiciness – like regulatory issues surrounding neurotechnology.
Pain, I learned at this meeting, is at the heart of many legal proceedings. A major problem to be solved in these proceedings is the determination of whether someone is truly in pain. Chronic pain in particular may not have physically obvious causes. There may be clinical and circumstantial evidence of pain – like adhering to a medication regime, seeking surgeries or other interventional procedures, and avoiding pleasurable activities – but often the major evidence of pain is just what someone says that it is. However, the motivation exists to lie about pain – to sue for more money, to obtain disability benefits – and so an objective measure of pain, a “pain-o-meter,” would be helpful.
The prevalence of chronic pain is staggering. The Institute of Medicine reported in 2011 that 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain – more than those with heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined. The report also highlights that the annual costs for medical care, lost wages and productivity is more than $600B. These enormous personal and societal costs of chronic pain has driven an effort to “prove” if and how much pain an individual is suffering from for health care providers, insurance companies and legal actors. This is challenging because pain is a personal and subjective experience. Ideally, self report would be sufficient to establish the “ground truth” of the pain experience.
However, some are not able to provide self reports accurately, and the potential financial gain associated with claims of pain has tarnished the perceived authenticity of subjective reports. This has led some to develop brain imaging-based tests of pain – a so-called “painometer.” Yet, current technologies are simply not able to determine whether or not someone has chronic pain. Here, I consider specifically how we could develop a brain-imaging based painometer – and whether we would want to do so. As we ask: “Can we do it?,” we should always ask, “Is this the right thing to do?”
This conference was the culmination of CLBB’s year of work on pain neuroimaging and law. As the first CLBB-Petrie-Flom Center Senior Fellow on Law & Applied Neuroscience, I focused on pain because it is one of the largest social, economic, and legal problems that can be addressed through new insights into the brain. Pain imaging can be a test case for how neuroscience can contribute positively to law and culture. (Full conference video proceedings are available here.) Please read on below! Continue reading →
The civil commitment of sexually violent predators (SVPs) is designed to protect society’s vulnerable from a group of perverts and monsters. What could be wrong with this? Only everything.
The current SVP civil commitment regime is itself a perversion – of facts, of medical ethics, and of justice. Cato Unbound usually curates excellent debates, representing a range of opinions. But in this case, we contributors, from a spectrum of backgrounds and ideological commitments, all agree: This regime is abominable. Continue reading →
I am excited to join the Petrie-Flom Center as the first Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience. This fellowship is the product of an innovative partnership between the Petrie-Flom Center and the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (CLBB) at Massachusetts General Hospital. This partnership aims to translate developments in neuroscience into legal applications, remaining sensitive to the normative dimensions of many – if not all – legal questions. The field of law & neuroscience is large and growing, addressing questions that intersect with nearly every area of law and a huge range of social and human concerns. CLBB is bringing together scientists, bioethicists, and legal scholars to look at questions ranging from criminal responsibility and addiction, to mind-reading and brain-based lie detection, to how the brain’s changes over our lifecourse affect our capacities to make decisions.
In the first year of this joint venture, we will be focusing on a set of issues with potentially huge implications for the law: The problem of pain. Pain is pervasive in law, from tort to torture, from ERISA to expert evidence. Pain and suffering damages in tort add up to billions of dollars per year; disability benefits, often awarded to people who suffer or claim to have chronic pain, amount to over one hundred billion annually. Yet legal doctrines and decision-makers often understand pain poorly, relying on concepts that are out of date and that can cast suspicion on pain sufferers as having a problem that is “all in their heads.”
Now, brain imaging technologies are allowing scientists to see the brain in pain – and to reconceive of many types of pain as diseases of the central nervous system. Brain imaging shows that, in many cases, the problem is literally in sufferers’ heads: Long-term pain changes the structure and function of the brain, perpetuating non-adaptive pain and interfering with cognitive and emotional function. Continue reading →