The topics of neuroscience and cognitive psychology have had long standing implications on the field of social justice, since they are often applied to a defendant’s case in a court of law. Time and time again, lawyers have attempted to twist facts about neurology to rationalize their clients’ innocence. Recently, however, biologists, psychologists, judges, and lawyers have shown increasing interest in delving deeper into this complex relationship and finding scientific evidence to support just how deep the connection between neuroscience and the law truly goes.
The idea of criminal responsibility, when put in terms of the insanity defense, is defined by the following components: a person must be consciously aware of his/her actions, understand that the action is wrong, and commit the crime. The moral dilemma of criminal responsibility can sometimes lead us into murky territory because it is often used as a loophole for those seeking an outlet from facing legal punishment for their crimes, given that it is so hard to prove whether or not someone is in his/her right mind. The insanity defense is often used to defend someone who is accused of committing a crime, but who may not be completely mentally aware of his/her actions. In this case, whether or not the person is truly guilty becomes much more complex. According to a written study by Duke law professor Nita Farahany and Stanford Law professor Henry T. Greely, neuroscience was used to rationalize the actions of defendants in over 2,800 judicial decisions in the years between 2005 and 2015. Given the rising number of cases citing neuroscience as a means to discriminate guilt from innocence, it is no surprise that getting to the bottom of the cross-disciplinary interaction of neuroscience and law has become essential.
A 2017 study conducted by the MacArthur Foundation, along with researchers from Yale and Virginia Tech, used an fMRI scanner to determine which parts of the brain were active when participants “knowingly” held illegal goods versus when they “recklessly knew” (were not fully aware) that they held illegal goods. The results of the study indicated that there was a difference between the brain scans of the two participant groups, suggesting that neurotechnology can determine a person’s mental state and level of awareness. Although this experiment is a good starting point in that it proves science’s accuracy in differentiating between the mental states of those who are fully conscious versus those who are not entirely conscious of their actions, applying the results of the study to the real world and to a court of law remains a bit of a stretch.
Another study conducted in 2016 by Anthony Wagner, director of Stanford University’s Memory Lab, investigated the ability of fMRI scanners to distinguish between actual memories and experiences that participants had never undergone. The results indicated that the scans held 90% accuracy, but a major limitation discovered by the research team is that it is possible for someone to “hide” a memory, thus making it difficult to tell based on brain patterns whether someone is experiencing an actual memory or a “false memory.” Once again, although it may become possible in the future to use brain technology to determine if a defendant recognizes a certain aspect of a crime scene etched in his/her memory, this applicability is far from reliable at this stage.
As scientists continue to investigate how neurology can be applied to legal cases, there is hope that neuroscience may one day become groundbreakingly helpful in accurately determining a person’s guilt or innocence. Neuroimaging is one of the many techniques that research in neurolaw is starting to uncover, specifically in deciding the plausibility of psychiatric diagnoses of those who claim the insanity defense. Another shocking application of neuroscience that may become a possibility is using neuroprediction to assess the level of danger that certain criminals pose to society, as a means to minimize future criminal activity. Not only will these applications change the nature of the judicial system as well as add immensely to our knowledge of the human brain, but these discoveries may also allow us to develop treatments for those with severe psychiatric disorders that may make them more likely to commit crimes.