“My brain made me do it”: are we ready for more Neurolaw?

I’m excited to say that my book Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility: Insights from Genetics and Neuroscience is being published this week.

determinism cover

There are 5 chapters, in which I have attempted to pull together threads from moral philosophy, from law and from neuroscience to examine the growth of Neurolaw. Around the world, notably the USA and Italy, an increasing number of defendants are appealing to their genes or issues with the structure and function of their brain as mitigation for their crimes. To what extent should we allow this, now or in the future?

Chapter summaries:

  • Free will and determinism: an overview of some of the main schools of thought regarding the “free will problem” – Libertarianism, Compatibilism and Hard Determinism.
  • Existing legislation on mental disorders and criminal cases: automatism, criminal liability, diminished responsibility, “disease of the mind”, insanity, mens rea and M’Naghten.
  • Biological basis of behaviour: background on behavioural genetics and the use of various brain imaging techniques to investigate the extent to which our behaviour might be “hard wired”.
  • Use of genetic and neuroscientific evidence in criminal cases: a brief history of neurolaw. Summarises many of the key cases in which scientific evidence has been proffered by in criminal cases as (partial) justification of the behaviour of the defendant.
  • Are we ready for an expanded use of neuroscientific evidence in the courtroom?: In which I caution that the current use of genetic and brain physiology evidence is, at best, premature and uncertain.

A new model for interaction between science research and TV?

A fascinating thing occurred this week. The website of top-notch scientific journal Nature uploaded the preprint of a paper on research looking into the alleged benefits of brain training games.

In and of itself this news may not sound revolutionary; Nature frequently publishes articles on neuroscience (and, I suspect, will be doing so more and more in coming years).   The thing I find interesting about this particular example is the fact that the research was initiated by the BBC’s peak-time science programme Bang Goes The Theory (awarded an honourable mention in last year’s round-up of Science TV). So what we have is television investing in science conducted by a recognised leader in the field of brain research (Adrian Owen, as also seen here) with the net result being a paper in a leading journal as well as an interesting programme.

Now clearly there is a lot of fundamental and important science that needs doing but will never attract the gaze or the funding of the BBC, Discovery Channel or so on. Nevertheless is this serves as a paradigm for a relationship that generates cash for research and at the same time enhances the quality and integrity of the science being discussed on the TV, that’s got to be a good thing. Right?

Add something “sciencey” to improve your plausability

There are many reasons why I am grateful to have spent some of my summer reading Ben Goldacre’s excellent book Bad Science, including the fact that it brought to my attention a paper The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. The article is an account of experiments conducted by Deena Weisberg and colleagues at Yale University, and was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2008.

jcn2Recognising that neuroscience is an area of research that fascinates the public and where discoveries are frequently picked up by the general press, Weisberg et al generated four explanatory statements for each of 18 different psychological phenoma. In each case the four statements represented:

  • a good explanation without specific mention of neuroscience
  • the same good explanation with the addition of plausible, but logically irrelevant, neuroscientific details
  • a bad explanation without specific mention of neuroscience
  • the same bad explanation with the addition of the same plausible (but irrelevant) neuroscience as in the second example

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