In September, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, a Vanderbilt-based research network that has pioneered research into the implications of neuroscience for criminal justice, received a $1.4 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. To date, the MacArthur Foundation has contributed more than $7.6 million to the research network, which is directed by Owen Jones, New York Alumni Chancellor’s Professor of Law and professor of biological sciences. Vanderbilt Law recently talked with Jones about his research.
1. Why has Law and Neuroscience become a new field of research?
It’s the confluence of two things, really. The first is that many of law’s perennial questions concern what’s going on in a person’s brain. Looking at criminal law, for instance: What was this criminal’s mental state at the time of his act? How responsible is this person for her behavior? What does this person remember, and how accurately? Is this person lying? How can we decrease bias in legal decision-making? A lot in law hinges on how brains work.
The second thing is that the last 20 years have seen the creation of new technologies and methods that enable us to learn—noninvasively—not only about the structure of a person’s brain but also about how it is actually functioning as it perceives, deliberates and chooses actions.
So the field is principally about how to navigate a careful and sensible path between over-optimism and over-pessimism when we apply the new tools of neuroscience to old questions of law. That exploratory spirit, which couples optimism with caution, guides everything the Research Network does.
2. How did the MacArthur Research Network come about?
The back story starts in 2006, with then-President Jonathan Fanton at the MacArthur Foundation. He had solicited a list of “big ideas” from scientists in the MacArthur Fellows program for broader, more ambitious projects for the foundation to consider. At the time, I was in the early stages of new neurolaw collaborations with two Vanderbilt neuroscientists—a brain-scanning experiment with Professor of Psychology René Marois and the beginnings of an interdepartmental neurolaw course with Jeff Schall, E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Neuroscience. The foundation asked me to review one of the “big ideas”—a creative and audacious proposal by Stanford behavioral biologist Robert Sapolsky that the foundation take a deep dive into the implications for criminal justice reform of major new advances in neuroscience. In light of several such reviews, Fanton eventually funded a $10 million grant proposal for a Law and Neuroscience project, of which I was appointed a co-director. The project produced more than 100 neurolaw publications between 2007 and 2011.
As the team was winding up the initial slate of research in 2011, the foundation provided me with funding to work full time for a year to design a new, next-stage research network on Law and Neuroscience. I ultimately proposed an interdisciplinary network, headquartered at Vanderbilt, in which researchers chosen from several fields would work together to design and execute dozens of specific, interconnected research projects on enumerated, legally relevant themes. The foundation accepted that proposal, and the work of this new network began.
Since then, the foundation has generously supported—with $7.6 million to date—the work of our outstanding team, which includes fantastic neuroscientists from leading universities like Stanford, Yale, Cornell, Harvard and UCLA, as well as federal and state judges, and prominent law professors from Yale, Columbia, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia, among others. That crucial MacArthur funding enabled us to undertake novel interdisciplinary experiments and to extend conceptual work in new directions.
3. Why did you decide to make Law and Neuroscience a major focus of your research?
The logic is pretty straightforward. Society uses law to change and channel human behavior. Behavior comes from brains. So the better we can understand how those brains work, the better we can all help law do its job.
For years now, advances in behavioral biology have been providing new frontiers for understanding how brains work. Yet the social science and life science perspectives on the multiple influences on behavior have historically been overdivided and underintegrated, as universities tried to jam complex realities into tidy departments. That unfortunate historical division left law and legal policy focused almost entirely on the social science half of the full behavioral equation. I try to help remedy that information shortfall by integrating insights from the fields of evolutionary biology, which explores why brains tend to operate as they do, and neuroscience, which explores how brains do what they do.
4. What have been your major goals for the Research Network?
My first goal was to have our interdisciplinary team design and begin neuroscience experiments that may prove useful to the legal system. My second goal, which is relevant because of the remarkable surge in proffers of brain-based evidence, is to help courts and lawyers develop sensible approaches for separating wheat from chaff.
The network has six major foci, each with its own interdisciplinary working group. One explores the promise and the limitations of using neuroscience to detect memories, specifically those relevant to recognizing stimuli and to lying. Another explores the prospects for detecting a subject’s mental state. A third focuses on how cognitive capacities of adolescents emerge as adolescent brains develop. Another has used brain-scanning techniques to discover the brain circuitries and interactions involved in assessing a person’s guilt and deciding how much to punish him. One group has tackled the problem of when and how science based on group studies can be used properly to address legal questions that concern individuals. And the sixth and final group plans and executes our educational and outreach programs for judges, attorneys and policymakers.
5. What has the Research Network accomplished thus far?
In the last four years, this team has published more than half of its projected 60-plus works of scholarship. That’s where our main efforts are focused. But we’ve also provided training programs for judges, published a neurolaw scholarship database, circulated 50 issues of Neurolaw News to more than 2,000 subscribers internationally, given more than 100 talks, posted 41 educational videos, published a primer on Law and Neuroscience for judges, published a more detailed book on the subject for students, judges and attorneys—and that’s just a short list.
6. What projects are researchers in the Research Network currently working on?
We’re exploring how brain development and cognitive capacities of adolescents interact in ways that may have implications for juvenile justice reform. We’re investigating whether there’s an underlying brain-based psychological reality to law’s distinction between knowing and reckless mental states. We’ve scanned judges to investigate the neural effects of legal training and experience. And we’re also studying the ways in which brains perceive and react to threats in cross-race contexts, which has potential implications for the training of police personnel.
Those are just a few of the initiatives we’ll continue to work on over the next two years. We have an amazingly talented group, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s been a truly humbling privilege every step of the way together. We’ve made more progress than I could have hoped for. And pairing such very different disciplines as Law and Neuroscience has proved to be as rewarding as it’s been challenging.
Over the past four years, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network in Law and Neuroscience has published dozens of important findings. Here are some examples:
• We can decode from brain activity whether a person remembers a previously encountered face or life event, or instead perceives it as novel. Our researchers found that, under some conditions, the ability to decode memory in this way approaches greater than 90 percent accuracy.
• We have identified the crucial brain areas involved in assessing harms, assigning blame and punishing—as well as the decision-making interactions among them. For instance, we discovered the interaction of emotional and analytic brain circuitries during these decisions, and are now successfully parsing the ways in which brains separately assess—and then later combine—information about a defendant’s mental state and the harm he caused.
• Subjects making juror-like decisions don’t fully understand and apply key culpable mental state categories the way the dominant approach in criminal statutes presumes. For instance, we’ve shown that people frequently believe reckless crimes are more blameworthy than knowing crimes, opposite to the Model Penal Code’s structure.
• Decision-making about the mental states of defendants is far more sensitive to small variations in language describing those mental states than commonly presumed. It’s possible, in some cases, to improve a subject’s comprehension of the criminal law’s mental states categories by providing better descriptions.
• Legal inferences about brain-based evidence can be improved. We’ve published a number of papers on when and how to use data from group-based neuroscientific studies to yield valuable insights about the causes of individual behavior.
• Using countermeasures can reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of brain-scanning for lie detection purposes. Our concerns about increasing efforts to use brain-scanning for lie detection purposes led us to show that even the most promising techniques are highly vulnerable to countermeasures.
For more information, see the Research Network website at www.lawneuro.org.