Did biology or free will cause Charles Whitman, the notorious University of Texas sniper, to kill 16 people in cold blood, including his wife and mother? An autopsy revealed the former Eagle Scout and Marine had a tumor in his amygdala, the center of aggression and fear. Whitman had sensed something was wrong in his brain, sought help from doctors before the killings, but could not control his murderous behavior in the end. Biology or free will? If a person’s behavior is at least partially driven by biology, how might that affect punishment and rehabilitation?
Neuroscience is reshaping the landscape of medicine and psychology, but marry it with the practice of law and you have neurolaw, a multidisciplinary initiative poised to dramatically change the legal landscape in the future. In fact, it’s already started. In the April issue of the Texas Bar Journal, I co-authored an article with Jason Bloom entitled, Neurolaw: Brain Waves in the Courtroom, addressing some of the implications of neurolaw on trials…some now and some in the near future. The article contains insights from an interview with NYT best-selling author and neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman, as well as information from other leading neuroscientists and legal experts.
You have probably heard of the MRI, but you may not know the extent of recent advances using fMRI technology to peer into people’s minds while they are thinking. Advances in neuroimaging technology, such as the fMRI, have made it possible for scientists to study behavior from the inside out, as opposed to analyzing behavior simply by observing external actions and results.
Regarding civil law, could fMRI technology change our civil courts if neuroscientists are able to use it to quantify pain and emotional distress? For both civil and criminal law, neuroscientists can now actually see bias in the brain, so how might that impact jury selection in the future?
Finally, what about today? Neuroscientific evidence has already been presented in over 100 trials and has been cited in at least one Supreme Court decision. Multidisciplinary neurolaw initiatives are active at Stanford, Cornell, Vanderbilt, USC, Baylor College of Medicine, and the University of Virginia, with at least two law schools offering dual degree programs in law and neuroscience. Also, Penn State is now sponsoring an annual Neuroscience Boot Camp to give lawyers, judges, educators, economists and businesspeople a basic foundation in neuroscience research. Neurolaw research is well-funded and here to stay; its future impact limited only by our imagination.