This rather macabre illustration is of the skull of Phineas Gage, an American railroad construction foreman. In 1845 he was the victim of an explosion that caused a three foot long iron rod to pass through his left cheek and out of the top of his skull. Remarkably, Gage survived. However, his personality and behaviour changed to the extent that his friends declared that he was ‘no longer Gage’. Gage’s case is significant as it marked the first time that the brain was linked to behaviour.
I recently attended the second Raymond and Beverley Sackler Royal Society-National Academy of Sciences Scientific Forum, where the link between brain and behaviour was central in discussions around neuroscience and the law. As the law is concerned with behaviour, it may not be surprising that neuroscience, the study of the brain and nervous system, is starting to feature in legal discourse. However, while neuroscience focuses on mechanisms, the language of the law is about actions. So how do we move from one to the other, and where might neuroscience have something of relevance to offer? Communication between the two cultures of law and neuroscience will doubtless be important here.
At the conference, wide-ranging areas of neuroscience with purported implications for the law were discussed: from understanding of pain, to memory, deception and psycopathy. The degree of scepticism varies not only over what neuroscience might be able to offer, but also over how this knowledge might impact on the law. For instance, there has been some degree of media interest in recent years around deploying neuroimaging for lie detection and other related purposes, most notably following a case in India. I think it’s fair to say that most neuroscientists are highly sceptical about such an application. Even if the technology were reliable, if a person really believes an untruth, is it still a lie? If a lie can be detected in the laboratory, does the same hold true in a real world setting? And is such a use of the technology ethically appropriate?
While other findings from neuroscience may be closer to having applications in a legal setting, a fundamental change as a result is not on the cards. Several of the speakers seemed to draw the conclusion that neuroscience may affect, but not revolutionise, the law.
We will be exploring some of these issues further in Module 4 of our Brain Waves project, which will examine neuroscience, responsibility and the law.