Neurolaw could split parties

The area where neuroscience and law intersect could make for political divides in the U.S.

Ethan Nelson

University of Minnesota researchers found officials’ political affiliation can determine their level of support for using neuroscience in criminal sentencing.

Republican and Independent political leaders are more likely to approve the use of neuroscience while sentencing criminals when the practice results in harsher rulings than the criminal would have otherwise received, according to a recently published by University researchers.

Using a criminal’s mental illness diagnoses to decide his or her sentencing is an example of neurolaw, or the intersection of neuroscience and law.

For the study, researchers from the Shen Neurolaw Lab surveyed about 1,000 people over the phone. The study’s results show that 9 percent of the public strongly disapprove of neurolaw practices, 9 percent strongly approve and 40 percent are undecided, the lab’s director Francis Shen said.

Researchers found that those associated with the Democratic Party, who supported the practices, did so regardless of its impact on a criminal’s sentence.

Though neurolaw has the potential to apply to a variety of fields, like policy, experts say it needs further development before its implemented into real-world situations.

Psychology professor Shmuel Lissek, who studies the brain and decision making, said there is variability in what MRI scans pick up.

They aren’t reliable enough to determine whether mental conditions influence actions, he said.

“We don’t know if neuroscience is right,” Lissek said. “Neuroscience can’t even produce confirmation that somebody’s a psychopath.”

Shen said recent media coverage of neurolaw has increased and neuroscience is being used more in courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Shen said for now, few people know much about nerolaw. But he said he thinks that could change soon.

“It’s just a little dot on the legal landscape,” Shen said. “I think we’re going to see a growth period.”

The study, he said, shows that though neurolaw isn’t completely partisan now, it could become a source of political tension as the field develops.

Lissek said neurolaw hasn’t developed enough for widespread implementation.

But in 50 years, he said, technology — like brain scans — might be accurate enough to use as evidence in a courtroom.

“It’s developments like that and an explosion in neuroscience that suggest we’ll see a spillover into things like neuroeconomics and neuromarketing,” Shen said.

Adam Steiner, a neuroscience research analyst in Shen’s lab, said over time, there have been more proposals for policy changes that mention aspects of neuroscience — like the effects of traumatic injuries and concussions.

He said lawmakers often don’t consider the basic science that informs neuroscience research, which can lead to proposals that focus too heavily on the diseases themselves rather than their root causes.

 “They’re missing a few steps,” Steiner said. “They’re very concerned with specific neurological problems — Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s — [and] I think that’s very important to keep in mind, but at the same time, we need to keep in mind the basic research that allows us to study these diseases.”

Rep. Susan Allen, DFL-Minneapolis, authored a bill last legislative session that said differences in brain development between juveniles and adults should be considered when sentencing adolescents.

She said she agrees that the field needs to evolve.

But in certain situations, it’s still applicable.

“I think it’s something that has not been fully developed,” Allen said. “When we do have children involved, that’s one of the things we should take into consideration.”

Allen and Lissek both said neuroscience could determine the degree to which people should be held responsible for their actions.

“That kind of perspective brings into question how morally culpable people should be,” Lissek said. “There’s a very strong imperative to keep societal members safe, to maintain societal order, so just from a purely practical perspective we have to hold people responsible.”