Jones Examines Role of Neuroscience in Legal System at Miller Lecture

Owen D. Jones

Owen D. Jones, the New York Alumni Chancellor’s Chair in Law and Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University, gave the 60th Henry J. Miller Distinguished Lecture Series on Oct. 10 at Georgia State University College of Law.

“I like to think of law as a lever for moving human behavior in directions that it would otherwise not go on its on,” said Owen D. Jones, the New York Alumni Chancellor’s Chair in Law and Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University. “If we were going there, we wouldn’t need an intervention. So, we are trying to get people to change their behavior.”

Jones gave the 60th Henry J. Miller Distinguished Lecture Series on Oct. 10 at Georgia State University College of Law. The founder and director of the national MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, Jones said an understanding of neuroscience and behavior is important in the legal system. His research uses methods from brain-imaging (fMRI), evolutionary biology, and behavioral economics to learn more about how the brain’s operations affect behaviors relevant to law.

Many questions that are grappled with in courtrooms—such as ‘Is this person responsible for his behavior? What was this person’s mental state at the time of criminal activity? How accurate is this person’s memory?’ have a basis in neuroscience, Jones said. In the past decade, there has been an increased demand for neurolaw education, growth in neurolaw scholarship and increased use of neurolaw in courtrooms, he said, and there are broad societal interests in its implications.

Neuroscience can offer aid to the legal system in many ways, including providing evidence to support to a conclusion, the possibility of getting better at targeting therapies for people who have addictions or have trouble controlling themselves, explaining behaviors and creating a fairer system of predicting dangerousness in the future or recidivism, and detecting whether someone is lying or whether or not they are feeling pain.

“Improvements in our ability to detect lies, even if they are imperfect, would be tremendous, because our next best technology is the jury system and that is not quite so accurate,” he said. “So, if we could boost that in some way—not turn somebody’s fate over to a lie detection device but one that might enable us to move in the direction over time of providing reliable evidence, that would be terrific. We are definitely not there yet but there is progress that can be made in that domain.”

Neuroscience research can also challenge assumptions in the legal system, he said. “If there is any place in the legal system that we have neuroscientific assumptions, it’s with respect to the evidentiary rules, which govern what information gets into a juror’s brain,” he said. He cited the rules against hearsay and the excited utterance exception exception. “We just assume you can’t lie quickly when you are excited—well that is a neuroscientific assumption, it may be true or it may not be true.”

Having a transdisciplinary approach to complicated legal issues is important, Jones said. Historically law’s models of human behavior have been populated almost exclusively from social sciences.

“This is a good thing to have social sciences involved, of course. It brings relevant information to the table. But at the same time this tended to ignore contributions from the life sciences,” he said. In addition to cognitive neuroscience, bringing evolutionary biology and behavioral genetics and other fields of behavioral biology to the table are also important in understanding behavior in a sophisticated way that is also accurate, he said.

Integrating social sciences with life sciences will help “enable some sort of grand synthesis as you try to solve the problem about the complexity of human behavior and what causes people to behave the way they do, and therefore how we might be able to most efficiently and most fairly create a justice system that can encourage [people] to behave in ways that are more socially and democratically percolated as useful.”

However, neuroscience might aid the legal system, Jones also cautions against making assumptions based on brain scans.

“The base rate problem is significant… you can’t assume just because there is a brain feature that looks bad, that that necessarily causes that behavior that should somehow enable mitigation in a sense,” he said. “There is a long chain of inferences between a brain scan and a conclusion about the effect of that brain condition …. You have to examine every single link in that chain to make sure they are logically and scientifically robust before you bring it into the legal system in a way that could have relevance to an outcome.”

Science shouldn’t drive the conclusion, he said, but as the legal system is tasked with doing something about human behavior, the more disciplines involved “the better off we will ultimately be,” he said.

The Henry J. Miller Distinguished Lecture Series is supported by the Charles Loridans Foundation Inc. and named for Henry J. Miller, a partner in the law firm of Alston & Bird for more than 50 years.

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