Jones Examines Role of Neuroscience in Legal System at Miller Lecture

Many questions that courts confront—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, said Owen D. Jones, the New York Alumni Chancellor’s Chair in Law and Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University. In the past decade, as neurolaw increasingly is used in courtrooms, there has been an increased demand for neurolaw education and growth in neurolaw scholarship. It has also garnered public attention to its societal implications.

60th Henry J. Miller Distinguished Lecture Series featuring Owen D. Jones

Jones gave the 60th Henry J. Miller Distinguished Lecture Series on Oct. 10 at Georgia State 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.

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.

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.  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.

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.