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Brain sciences and the law to be explored during lecture at ASU


September 18, 2012

Owen D. Jones, New York Alumni Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University, will deliver a lecture titled, “Law, Brain Sciences, and Our Near Neuro-Future,” Oct. 1, at the College of Law.

The free lecture will begin at noon in the Great Hall in Armstrong Hall on ASU’s Tempe campus. Tickets are available here.

Jones served as a professor and faculty fellow in the Center for Law, Science & Innovation at the College of Law and as a biology professor at ASU until 2004. In addition to his joint appointments at Vanderbilt, he is Director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience there

“Owen Jones is the preeminent scholar in the nation on law and neuroscience,” said Dean Douglas Sylvester of the College of Law. “His work, at the intersection of law, biology, and neuroscience has profound implications for the administration of justice and the creation of effective regulatory regimes and has the potential to break down the boundaries between numerous academic and policy disciplines. In addition, and I can speak from personal experience here, he is an incredible public speaker. We are very excited to have him here for our Boundless Lecture Series.”

Jones’ presentation will provide information about the use and interpretation of brain imaging techniques in the courtroom. He hopes to cultivate an understanding of controversial issues, such as whether brain science should affect sentencing decisions.

“It can be hard to draw a legitimate connection between some past criminal behavior and a current brain scan,” Jones said “even if the scan shows abnormalities.” 

With a variety of applications in the courtroom, brain imagery has Jones and others concerned that some attorneys may misuse it. From studies linking videogame violence to adolescent aggression, to murder suspects seeking more lenient sentences for brain abnormalities, the possibilities are broad, he said.

“It’s relatively new,” said Jones. “So the judicial system can have a hard time knowing how to engage this sort of evidence.”

Jones and his colleagues at Vanderbilt have been working over the last several years to integrate insights in social science with life science methods. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), for example, they recently discovered the brain activity underlying decisions of whether to punish someone, and to what extent.

During his time at ASU, Jones did extensive research to find ways of integrating evolutionary biology perspectives on behaviors into legal thinking.

“I was particularly interested in the question of whether or not people behave unpredictably, or directly contrary to common predictions,” Jones said.