Neuroscience and law project could help courts determine truth
BY MITZI BAKER
If lawyers and judges could peer into the brains of trial witnesses to see if they are lying or feeling as much pain as they say they are, their jobs might be a lot easier. In an effort to apply neuroscience's ability to glimpse the inner workings of brains to some of the slippery questions of legal decision-making, three Stanford faculty have signed on to the Law and Neuroscience Project.
Funded by a three-year, $10 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the project was launched Oct 9. Headquartered at UC-Santa Barbara, the Law and Neuroscience Project combines the expertise of neuroscience and psychology researchers with that of lawyers, judges and philosophers.
"Neuroscientists have been doing really fascinating and important research, but they haven't been guided by or particularly aware of what the law might find useful or interesting," said Hank Greely, JD, the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law and co-director of one of the project's three working groups.
"What is unique about this project is that it is more focused on answering questions that the law will actually ask," Greely said. "Maybe it will turn out that the law has no interest in the answers, or maybe it will turn out that the answers will revolutionize the law."
The two other Stanford researchers already involved in the project are William Newsome, PhD, professor and chair of neurobiology, and Anthony Wagner, PhD, associate professor of psychology.
"The MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project promises to propel increased appreciation of the implications of neuroscience data for both legal theory and practice," said Wagner.
The project will initially consist of three working groups. The three Stanford participants will be in the group looking at people with abnormal brain function (people with brain damage, who are mentally ill, juveniles or are incompetent in some way). The other two working groups will address decision-making in normal people and addiction.
Greely said he expects more Stanford researchers will join the various studies. The project already includes participants from more than 20 universities.
Each working group will be directed by a neuroscientist and a legal expert and include up to 15 neuroscientists, legal scholars, philosophers and practitioners involved in the legal system, including a judge. Greely will co-direct his working group with Michael Gazzaniga, PhD, professor of psychology at UCSB, where he heads the new SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind. Gazzaniga spearheaded the overall project.
This project will address topics limited only be the imaginations of the people involved. Greely outlined a few that members are pursuing:
"I think this is the century of the brain," said Greely. Scientists now understand infinitely more than they did even 20 years ago, and even that knowledge constitutes only a small fraction of determining how the brain works. Future developments in understanding brain function will have huge implications for society.
"Human society is really the society of human brains," he said. "It is our brains—or the minds those brains generate—that are what we care about in people, so anything that changes how well we understand the brain is likely to have major effects on how society functions."