On Monday, New America Foundation in Washington, DC held a thought-provoking event, My Brain Made Me Do It, which explored the role of neuroscience in understanding human behavior, particularly that of criminals, and the extent to which such research can or should be used in the criminal justice system. The program was the latest installment in the Future Tense partnership between New America Foundation, Slate magazine, and Arizona State University to “explore emerging technologies and their transformative effects on society and public policy.”
Stephen Morse, associate director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at University of Pennsylvania Law School, began by cautioning that we must shy away from a strongly reductionist account of human behavior and take seriously the current limits of neuroscience research and understanding. The subsequent panels discussed 1) neuroscience research being done to better understand human behavior and target treatments for mental illnesses; 2) the association between lack of empathy, abnormalities of the amygdala, and violent behavior in adolescents; and 3) the legal implications of, and rates at which, neuroimages of defendants are being used as evidence in criminal cases to excuse culpability or reduce sentences.
The speakers were very careful to articulate the complexities at stake when considering whether and how neuroscience research should be used in the criminal justice system. As Morse made clear, we need to understand that we are neither rational agents with complete free will nor simply victims of neuronal circumstances. Who we are, the decisions we make, and our propensity to commit violent crime are the result of a complex interaction among genetic susceptibilities, yet-unexplainable neural interactions, environmental and social influences that affect our development, and personal choices impacted by all of these factors. Deciding whether individuals deemed “at risk” for violent behavior, based on brain scans and genetic testing, should be held morally responsible for their actions will only become more complicated as our understanding of brain function and genetics becomes more advanced. There are many questions that remain about the role of neuroscience in the criminal justice system, but like human nature itself, the legal system is a combination of phenomenon that can be explained and those that cannot. Reasoned dialogue between the research, legal, and public community will be necessary as we consider these questions.
Watch a video of the event at the New America Foundation Web site.
Ross White is the public policy associate at The Hastings Center and a graduate student in philosophy and social policy at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @rossswhite.