Opening Statements

University of Pennsylvania offers a boot camp on brain science

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Illustration by J. Manzo

Phoenix public defender Ingrid Miller has been hearing a lot about neuroscience in the courtroom and wanted to know how much of it was hype.

So she signed up for Neuroscience Boot Camp, a 10-day crash course on the brain run by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Neuroscience & Society. “It took me a while after I got home to wrap my brain around what I learned,” Miller says. “It teaches you to think differently about people.” The program, which began in 2009, explains neuroscience from the cellular level to the philosophical. It has been especially attractive to lawyers.

“Lawyers and legal scholars are being bombarded with all kinds of claims based on neuroscience,” says the center’s director, Martha J. Farah. “We are trying to help them navigate through the evidence for such claims, equipping them with enough of a foundation of understanding that they can take in the arguments and ask good critical questions.”

Miller, who thought brain scans might help her in court to explain criminal behavior, left with a different view. “I had an irrational exuberance about this going in, thinking ‘Oh, I can just scan people’s brains,’ ” she says. “During boot camp I started to realize that it’s going to be a long way before we can use it to show causation.”

Miller still sees neuroscience as valuable in mitigation. It can help explain, though not excuse, the actions of clients whose brains might be damaged or compromised. She also gained a better understanding of addiction and mental illness. “The whole process for me gave me more confidence on so many levels,” she says.

John Stinneford, a University of Florida law professor and assistant director of the school’s Criminal Justice Center, attended because of his interest in whether the science could be misused to excuse moral culpability among juveniles.

“Overall, it gave me a sense of what the science can and can’t do. I learned an enormous amount about the way the brain is constructed. It was an amazing experience.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “It’s Not Rocket Science: Penn offers a boot camp on brain science.”

Updated on Dec. 3 to fix an error in the headline composed by online staff.

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