The Next Frontier of Law

Some of the thorniest questions legal professionals must wrestle with are also some of the most fundamental: What was this person thinking? How responsible was that person for his or her behavior? How accurate is the witness’s memory? Is the witness lying?


Some believe that technology will soon answer these questions. Others are more cautious. Owen Jones, the Joe B. Wyatt Distinguished University Professor, New York Alumni Chancellor’s Professor of Law, and professor of biological sciences, sees virtue in both positions. According to Jones, the rapid advance of brain scanning techniques over the past two decades has created an acute need for the legal field to cultivate expertise in what neuroscience can tell us about human behavior—and just as importantly, what it can’t. “A functional MRI can record the activity of the brain as it performs a task, but how much does that actually tell us about what is going on in someone’s mind?” Jones asked. “It’s not mind-reading in the sense that we can say, ‘A-ha! Now we know you were at the 7-11 last Thursday at 10 p.m.’ But it does enable us to understand the ways in which brain tissue works and interacts as people make decisions relevant to law.”

Jones is one of the founding fathers of what the New York Times has dubbed “neurolaw.” He received over $6 million in funding from the MacArthur Foundation to create and direct the Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, a network housed at Vanderbilt that aims to guide the legal profession through the thickets and implications of brain science. Through the network, researchers at more than a dozen of the county’s most elite institutions collaborate on experiments and public policy documents that have resulted in more than 30 publications in the last three years, with 35 more in the works.

In 2010, Jones teamed up with Vanderbilt neuroscientists Mark Wallace, who holds a Louise B. McGavock Chair in Medicine, Professor René Marois, and Jeffrey Schall, who holds the E. Bronson Ingram Chair of Neuroscience, to launch the first integrated Law and Neuroscience J.D./Ph.D. program in the country. “The Law and Neuroscience program represents an integral step in taking knowledge derived from contemporary neuroscience approaches and concepts and applying it to issues of great societal relevance,” said Wallace, who is director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and associate director of the Silvio O. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research.

Prospective students must be highly qualified for graduate study in both disciplines. In addition to the law curriculum, students take core courses in systems neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience before rotating through three neuroscience labs and completing a dissertation.

The goal of the seven-year program is “to provide a pathway by which a student can get dual training under an integrated framework in both law and neuroscience,” Jones said. “The idea is to create someone who is fluent in both.”

Interest in the dual-degree program continues to climb, but Jones and his colleagues are purposely keeping enrollment low for the time being. “It’s a brand-new interdisciplinary nexus,” Jones said. “What we want to do is explore how this will best work, and how our graduates will fare.”

Two students have been admitted thus far, both neuroscience majors in college with significant law and public policy experience demonstrated through internships and academic coursework.

“I’m probably taking the longest 2L summer ever,” said Matthew Ginther, who enrolled in 2010. Ginther chose to begin his neuroscience coursework after his first year of law school and has been balancing his time in each field ever since. He says the program’s flexibility is the key to negotiating the potentially competing demands of the two tracks. Five years in, he’s begun working on his dissertation research, a group of projects loosely centered on questions of legal reasoning. “It’s not common for law students to spend their evenings and weekends scanning the brains of judges,” he said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

Christopher Sundby enrolled in 2013. He had considered joint law and behavioral sciences programs at Northwestern and Cornell, but was drawn to Vanderbilt for the opportunity to work with Jones and Vanderbilt’s outstanding neuroscientists. Sundby has taken a slightly different path than Ginther, focusing exclusively on law coursework during his first two years, although he has recently begun attending lab meetings to begin acquainting himself with the neuroscience program. He cites the close mentorship that such a small program allows. Sundby says that Jones “invests lots of time and effort into my education. He really takes an interest.”

Jones is thrilled by their progress. “We have been delighted with the caliber of student the dual degree has attracted,” Jones said. “Matt and Christopher are both doing outstanding work, and thriving even above and beyond what we could have hoped.”

– Liz Entman, Vanderbilt University

Christopher Sundby, J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Law & Neuroscience

Christopher Sundby (SANDY CAMPBELL)

As an undergraduate at Oberlin, Chris Sundby took a neuroscience class “on a whim.” He was immediately hooked and chose neuroscience as his major. For his honors thesis, he designed and led a research project addressing the role of hormones in Alzheimer’s disease. He graduated with high honors in 2012.

But Sundby wanted not only to study the biological basis of behavior, but also to address the legal quandaries that will inevitably arise as more is learned about the interplay between the brain and behavior. He entered Vanderbilt’s Ph.D. program in law and neuroscience as a John W. Wade Scholar in fall 2013, attracted by Vanderbilt’s formal dual-degree program and the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, which is based at Vanderbilt and directed by Owen Jones, New York Alumni Chancellor’s Professor of Law and professor of biology. Jones frequently collaborates with students and neuroscience professors on brain-imaging research projects. “Having professors who take an interest in their students and work, publish and teach with them is really important to me,” Sundby said.

Sundby is interested in the extent to which evidentiary rules, which are premised on how jurors’ brains will process and be affected by information, are or are not consistent with emerging neuroscience on how brains generate decisions. As one initial avenue into this larger topic, he is working with Jones on a directed research project focusing on “the present sense impression” exception to the general hearsay rule of evidence. “That exception is based on the assumption that it’s harder for people to lie about an event they are viewing concurrently, which is a huge assumption,” he said. “We can apply neuroscience to test that assumption.”

Sundby spent his first two years at the law school and then was the Vanderbilt Law Review’s senior articles editor during 2015–16 while beginning his neuroscience coursework. “It helped bridge the gap between the lab and the law school,” he said. He has identified a number of issues in addition to “the present sense impression” that he hopes to examine from a neuroscience perspective. “I kept a little black book and wrote down research ideas as they come up in class,” he said. “Several law professors do research with an empirical focus, and being around minds that attack issues from an empirical angle really benefited my thinking.”

Summer 2015 Vanderbilt Law Magazine