How well a person’s brain functions—and how it was operating during a specific timeframe, is a question often raised in the legal system. What was the defendant’s mental state at the time of a criminal act? Does a brain abnormality suggest diminished responsibility? Civil litigants may argue about a person’s competence when it comes to entering into contracts, how much psychological trauma they are experiencing or whether their mental state makes them eligible to receive benefits.
Owen D. Jones, the New York Alumni Chancellor’s Chair in Law and professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, will discuss how neuroscience and behavior interconnects with law at Georgia State University College of Law’s 60th Henry J. Miller Distinguished Lecture Series held in the Marjorie & Ralph Knowles Conference Center at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10.
The Henry J. Miller Distinguished Lecture Series is supported by the Charles Loridans Foundation Inc. and named for Henry J. Miller, a partner in the law firm of Alston & Bird for more than 50 years. It is an invitation-only event.
Jones, founder and director of the national MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, uses methods from brain-imaging (fMRI), evolutionary biology, and behavioral economics to learn more about how the brain’s operations affect behaviors relevant to law.
“My scholarship generally aims to help bridge the behavioral sciences on which legal thinkers inevitably depend, when trying to understand, guide, change or regulate human behavior,” he said. “New techniques in neuroscience, such as brain scanning, are enabling discoveries about the brain activities that correlate with decision-making and behavior. What are, and aren’t, the proper implications for law?”
Law is often a tool for society to change, channel, judge or punish human behavior, Jones said. Judges, policymakers, attorneys, and law students often must grapple with legal issues involving memory, brain injury, pain, emotions, addiction, dementia, brain death, violence, responsibility, psychoses, behaviors of adolescents and of the elderly, Jones said.
As neuroscientific evidence is increasingly being presented in the courtroom, Jones and the Research Network aims to help those in the legal field gain an understanding so that such evidence may be properly evaluated and aid, rather than hinder, the administration of justice.
“The better we can understand how brains work — how and why people behave as they do, and how legal interventions might best inspire constructive changes in future behavior — the better we can help law do its job,” he said.
Jones has published more than 50 scholarly articles, book chapters, and essays in such legal venues as the Columbia, Chicago, California, NYU, Northwestern, Cornell, Vanderbilt, and Michigan law reviews, and in such leading scientific journals as Neuron, Nature Neuroscience, the Journal of Neuroscience, Current Biology, Evolution and Human Behavior, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He also co-wrote Law and Neuroscience.
Before joining the legal academy, Jones was a law clerk for Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and practiced law with Covington & Burling. In 2015, he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Having an interdisciplinary approach to complicated legal issues is important, Jones said. In his lecture, he will share results of experiments co-designed by neuroscientists, judges and legal scholars that provide insight and new frameworks for thinking about such issues.
“Legal problems, just like world problems, do not arrive at a university neatly packaged and addressed only to one department or another,” Jones said. “Reality is too complex, and the challenges are too important, to think that any one discipline can fully understand, let alone solve, complex problems involving human perceptions, reactions and behaviors.”