neuroscience | April 04, 2011

David Eagleman: Why Our Legal System Needs Neuroscience

In an article in today’s Daily Telegraph, David Eagleman — acclaimed neuroscientist and author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain — tackled the issue of neuroscience and its role in the legal system. The central issue lies with the assumption that all people are “practical reasoners” (meaning they will act in their best interests and are capable of rational foresight), and that anyone who is of legal age and has an IQ of above 70 has the same capacity for impulse controlling, rationality and decision making as any other individual who meets these standards. Why are these assumptions problematic? Because, as Eagleman points out, they are not true:


Along any axis that we measure, brains are different – whether in aggression, intelligence, empathy and so on. Brains are more like fingerprints: we all have them, but they are not exactly alike. As Lord Bingham, the senior law lord, put it, these myths embedded in the legal system do not provide a “uniformly accurate guide to human behaviour”.

The legal system needs an infusion of neuroscience. It needs to turn away from an ancient notion of how people should behave to understand better how they do behave.

Instead of treating incarceration as a “one-size-fits-all” solution to violators of social norms, Eagleman proposes that we try and sentence offenders based on a variety of different conditions. Specialty mental health courts and facilities for the mentally ill, studying the neurological demand for drugs instead of spending millions fighting the supply, and engaging prisoners in brain-based rehabilitation programs — all of these ideas focus on the reality of human behavior, instead of the societal expectations of it. Just as DNA evidence has revolutionized the legal process, Eagleman believes that incorporating the recent breakthroughs in neuroscience can help make our legal system more efficient, more humane, and more fair.

Read more about neuroscience speaker David Eagleman.