This page is archived

Links to external sources may no longer work as intended. The content may not represent the latest thinking in this area or the Society’s current position on the topic.

Brain Waves 4: Neuroscience and the law

Neuroscientists seek to determine how brain function affects behaviour, and the law is concerned with regulating behaviour. It is therefore likely that developments in neuroscience will increasingly be brought to bear on the law. This report sets out some of the areas where neuroscience might be of relevance, along with some of the limits to its application. Specific issues discussed include risk assessment in probation and parole decisions; detecting deception; assessing memory; understanding pain; and Non-Accidental Head Injury NAHI).

Key messages

Key messages of the report include:

  • There is a big gap between research conducted by neuroscientists and the realities of the day to day work of the justice system. There is currently no forum in the UK for bringing together neuroscientists and legal professionals to explore areas of mutual interest.
  • It is important that professionals at all stages of the legal system who might encounter neuroscience understand some of the key principles on which it is based; the limitations to what studies can tell us; and some of the generic challenges of its application. Lawyers and judges in England and Wales often have no training in scientific principles. Undergraduates in neuroscience are not necessarily taught about the societal implications of the discipline.
  • Almost all neuroscientific research in the UK is related to health. However, findings from research have wider policy implications. Important insights for the law would be provided by further research into areas including neuropathology studies to characterise Non-Accidental Head Injury (NAHI); and studies into the relative efficacy of different models of risk assessment in the context of probation, and a possible role for neuroscience to be used in combination with existing approaches.
    Professor Nicholas Mackintosh FRS, chair of the working group, provided an introduction to the report at the press briefing (MP3, 4 mins). The report was also discussed on the BBC Radio 4 programme 'All in the mind' on Tuesday 13 December 2011.

Sackler Forum

The 2nd Royal Society-National Academy of Sciences Sackler Forum on the subject of neuroscience and the law took place at the National Academies’ Beckman Center on the 2nd – 3rd March 2011. Many of the talks are available online. We are very grateful to the Sackler family for their generous funding of this event.

See all reports from the project: