Opening Statements

Law's New Brain Trust


What role should brain scans play in court cases? Should psychopaths have a biomedical argument for special sentencing considerations? Are new developments in the study of the human brain help­ful to judges and juries—or just misleading?

These are just a few of the myriad questions that mem­bers of the Law and Neuroscience Project will put their minds to over the next three years.

And those minds are formidable: Project members include neuroscientists, lawyers and scholars from two dozen universities. Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor chairs its governing board.

Funding the project is a potentially renewable $10 mil­lion grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Launched in the fall, the project seeks to integrate the worlds of law and neuroscience—and to illuminate the ethical and legal issues between them, says project director Michael S. Gazzaniga, who also leads the Sage Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where the project is headquartered.

“There’s a rich field to mine here, a lot of large philosophical questions,” Gazzaniga says. “A lot of people have thought about these problems, but most people have not thought about them in a serious way.”

This year, three working groups—each of up to 15 neuroscientists, legal scholars and ethicists—will be thinking seriously about three topics: diminished brains, addiction and decision-making. They’ll meet up at an annual conference in the spring to share information and further discuss their respective topics.

Project participants also will plan seminars and conferences, including workshops for lawyers and judges on neuroscience basics and how they apply to the law, says project co-director Walter Sinott-Armstrong, a professor of philosophy and legal studies at Dartmouth College.

In its quest to seek out “fresh ideas,” the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation had asked 100 of “the best minds in this country” to identify an emerging trend, problem or opportunity, says MacArthur president Jonathan Fanton. Stanford University neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky responded, Fanton says, challenging the foundation to bring law and neuroscience together. The foundation signed on, awarding the grant in October.

“We hope for tangible benefits from this project as the rules of evidence, lie detection practices and the substantive criteria for criminal responsibility evolve and change,” Fanton says.

Why must lawyers better understand the human brain? For Sinott-Armstrong, it’s a question of justice. “Some of these uses of neuroscience by defense attorneys are really just misleading because the science is not fully developed and some of the studies they cite are for theoretical purposes, not practical application,” he explains. “So one of [the project’s] goals is to make sure that neuroscience is not misused in the courtroom and to set up standards for when it should or should not be allowed.”

The second goal is to use neuroscience to make the legal system better, especially in relation to addicts and psychopaths. “The majority of people arrested for felonies are high on some substance, and quite a few are addicts. If we can better understand addiction, the legal system might be able to deal with this very large-scale problem more effectively,” Sinott-Armstrong explains. Ditto those criminal defendants who exhibit psychopathic tendencies, he adds.

This year, the working groups are largely planning and organizing; targeted research will begin next year, says Gazzaniga. Some of the research will involve prison populations, while other experi­ments will involve legal questions such as differing standards of insanity in different jurisdictions.

The key to the project is to investigate and then enlighten, he says. “It’s time for everyone who’s a player on these topics to get in the same room.”

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