On October 9, American neuroscientists and legal experts came together in
the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Court House in New York City to
launch the Law and Neuroscience Project.
The project constitutes one of the first systematic efforts in the United
States to bring the worlds of neuroscience and law together in an effort to
determine where neuroscience informs the legal process and where it probably
doesn't have anything to say.
The project will be financed by an initial three-year, $10 million grant
from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It will be headed by
Michael Gazzaniga, Ph.D., director for the SAGE Center for Study of Mind at
the University of California, Santa Barbara. Former Supreme Court Justice
Sandra Day O'Connor is honorary chair of the project. One of the members of
the project's governing board is Stephen Hyman, M.D., a former director of the
National Institute of Mental Health and now a professor of neurobiology at
Not long ago, "we did a search to find out how often neuroscience is
used in current court cases," Gazzaniga told Psychiatric News.
She and her colleagues identified 916 cases on dockets throughout the country.
The cases concern questions such as whether brain scans can divulge
culpability, whether psychological pain can be measured objectively, what is
the impact of punishment severity, and what kind of culpability should be
applied to people who are addicted. During the project's first year, its
members will focus on such questions, and during the second and third years
they will conduct research to answer some of them.
Moreover, they plan on developing guidelines for the legal profession on
subjects such as the determination of competency and culpability and treatment
for psychopaths or persons determined to be criminally insane. They also aim
to develop a primer for judges and lawyers that will give a quick reference to
neuroscience subjects that might arise in court proceedings—for example,
addiction, impulsivity, lies, memory, prejudice, psychopathy, and the use and
limits of different kinds of brain scans.
What are several of the major challenges that the project members will
face? "I think nailing down the specifics on all of these issues and
determining which questions can be answered with current technology and which
cannot," Gazzaniga stated. For example, she noted, can lies be detected
with brain scans or electrophysiological methods, and can people really make
deliberate, totally conscious choices?
"The legal system assumes that people make deliberate choices and
what we choose determines what we do," Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Ph.D.,
a professor of legal studies at Dartmouth College and a project member, said
in a prepared statement issued in conjunction with the October 9 conference."
However, neuroscience indicates that our choices sometimes are based
upon electrical impulses and neuron activity that are not part of conscious
behavior." If this contradiction can be resolved, it would impact not
just criminal guilt, but also decisions made by police, prosecutors, or jurors
to arrest, prosecute, or convict, Sinnott-Armstrong suggested.
"Neuroscience could have an impact on the legal system that is as
dramatic as DNA testing," MacArthur Foundation President Jonathan Fanton
As information is collected and analyzed, it will be posted on the
project's Web site and reported at public conferences. The project will also
arrange several weekend retreats each year so that judges, lawyers,
legislators, and opinion leaders can learn the basics of neuroscience and its
application to the law.
More information about the Law and Neuroscience Project is posted at<www.lawandneuroscienceproject.org>.▪