A team of Vanderbilt researchers will play an important role in a landmark study into the emerging field of law and neuroscience—analyzing the human brain to better understand how the brain’s actions impact the law.
The first-of-its-kind project, which is a collaboration among researchers at Vanderbilt and 24 other universities, is funded by a $10 million grant awarded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Vanderbilt professor Owen Jones, one of the nation’s few professors of both law and biology, helped procure the grant and will serve as co-director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Decision-Making, one of three research networks within the Law and Neuroscience Project. The other two branches will explore the roles of brain abnormalities and addiction as it relates to criminal behavior and criminal responsibility.
The Law and Neuroscience Project is the first systematic effort to bridge the fields of law and science in considering how courts should deal with new brain-scanning techniques as they apply to matters of law. Professor Jones’ research network will explore decision making related to complex issues surrounding criminal intent.
Jones and the “decision-making” team will examine decisions that lead to criminal behavior –what aspect of the brain prompts a person to switch from law-abiding to law-breaking? This research will, in essence, explore the neurological side of things such as emotion, choice, risk, inhibition and temptation.
The team will also look into decisions legal experts, such as judges, juries, witnesses and lawyers, make about crime and punishment. The researchers will analyze the brain to see if biases based on race, sex or ethnicity can be detected and they will investigate how jurors react to different kinds of evidence.
Jones’ team, which includes associate professor of psychology and neuroscience René Marois, Ingram professor of neuroscience and director of the Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience Jeff Schall and professor of law and director of Vanderbilt Law School’s law and human behavior program Erin O’Hara, among others, will study the brain’s activities using a highly sensitive technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI. FMRI looks at parts of the brain that are more active when a person does a specific task or has a specific thought.
Jones explained that the more a part of the brain works the more oxygen it needs. The fMRI can ‘see’ where that oxygen is going, which enables the researchers to track which parts of the brain are being used when the subject is making different decisions.
Jones and Marois, who began working together two years ago, are the first law and neuroscience researchers to conduct fMRI research on criminal punishment aspects of legal decision making and Vanderbilt is one of the few universities in the world with a state-of-the-art Institute of Imaging Science, led by John Gore, which contains multiple high-powered fMRI scanners.
“The law makes a lot of assumptions about how and why people behave the ways they do,” said Jones. “With this research, we can learn more about what underlies those behaviors by using non-invasive technologies, to investigate what’s going on in the brain.”
"Owen Jones and his colleagues have created a new discipline at the intersection of law and neuroscience, one that takes full advantage of Vanderbilt’s unique strengths in both areas," said Interim Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. "Selection for the MacArthur project demonstrates the power and importance of interdisciplinary approach to discovery."
The Law and Neuroscience Project is centered at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor serves as honorary chair. UCSB Professor of Psychology Michael S. Gazzaniga, who also directs the Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, is the director and principal investigator. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Philosophy and Hardy Professor of Legal Studies at Dartmouth College, co-directs the project.
Proponents of neuroscientific evidence say it can help make the judicial system more accurate and less biased on matters of guilt, punishment, and treatment, on the detection of lies and bias, and in the prediction of criminal behavior. They believe the result could be less crime and fewer people in prisons. Skeptics fear that brain-imaging technology poses a threat to privacy and notions of personal responsibility. Both scientists and legal scholars warn that failing to properly integrate neuroscience and law could harm the legal system by sending the wrong people to prison, and by creating skepticism about some of the law’s basic assumptions.