Neuroscience and the Law
Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 9, 2007
Last month, Dean Mobbs, Hakwan Lau, Owen Jones & Christopher Frith (from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL) published a thoughtful article in Plos Biology entitled “Law, Responsibility, and the Brain.” The article summarizes some of the recent discoveries of neuroscience that may have “implications for the way government institutions, including education and legal systems, operate.”
The authors . . . briefly review how damage to various parts of the frontal or temporal lobe is correlated with anti-social behaviour patterns. To summarize, frontal lobe damage is now generally assumed to result in “acquired sociopathy” – it is associated with increased aggression or violence . . . . On the other hand, damage to the amygdala, a structure found on the medial surface of the temporal lobe, is associated with an impaired ability to recognize emotions in others, which often leads to impaired social and moral reasoning.
The authors of the essay note that neuroimaging studies suggest a link between brain damage and some forms of criminal behaviour, and discuss the legal implications of these findings. They are skeptical of the use of neuroimaging data in the courtroom, and suggest that such “evidence” will only be reliable after research provides us with a better understanding of the neural correlates of criminality. They believe that advances in our understanding of brain function will eventually change our views of responsibility, free will and culpability, and could have a major impact on how the American and British legal systems treat and punish criminals.
And, unlike most considerations of this topic, which have focused on the criminal, they emphasize that neuroscience also provides a possibility of gaining insight into the cognitive processes of judges and jurors, and of learning more about the limitations of eyewitness testimonies.