Creating a just legal system based on neuroscience

Creating a just legal system based on neuroscience

BOOKS | Is justice truly blind? David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, is concerned. Old courtroom technologies like witness accounts and parole hearings are largely ruled by the unconscious mind. As new technologies uncover more details about how brains work, neurolaw could be the future of the legal system.


“How much of our lives are determined by choices and behaviors that are hard-wired, unconscious, and beyond our control?” asks Eagleman. It’s more than a curiosity – new insights into neuroscience are shedding light on why people commit crimes, and may lead to changes in justice.


Our legal system is based on a couple of key assumptions. That people are capable of rational foresight about their actions. And that all brains are created equal. “But these ideas simply don’t match up with the facts of neuroscience,” says Eagleman. “The physical and mental are so closely aligned that they appear, as far as modern science can currently tell, identical. This viewpoint changes our notions of ourselves – and it will almost certainly change the legal system as well.”


In a world where ugly people get longer sentences than pretty people, neurolaw is a growing (and controversial) field that seeks to create a legal system that is more in tune with how our brains work – and make each of us different. “Eyewitness testimony is perhaps the worst technology we have in courtrooms,” Eagleman said in a recent online discussion.


“We will continue to take violators of social norms off the streets; we will still assign values right and wrong to behaviors.” But with a better understanding of why people commit crimes, neurolaw could help legal systems create more just sentencing and better rehabilitation – and become a preventative force in the future.


Profile in The New Yorker
RSA talk “The Brain and the Law”
Article in the Telegraph
Like David on Facebook


"Phrenology Heads." Image courtesy of Gaetan Lee by Creative Commons License