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Neuroscience expert delivers 'Boundless Lecture' at College of Law

October 04, 2012

The intersection of the rapidly evolving science of the brain and the responsibility of individuals in society was the focus of a talk given by Vanderbilt University professor Owen D. Jones at the College of Law, Oct. 1.

Jones, a former law and biology professor at Arizona State University who currently is Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University, gave a lecture titled, “Law, Brain Sciences, and Our Near Neuro-Future.”

“Let’s talk about brains here for a few minutes,” Jones began, following an introduction by Douglas Sylvester, dean of the College of Law.

“Are we puppets of our brains and genes?” he asked. “Are we nothing but a collection of neurons?”

These are the types of questions skeptics of brain-imaging techniques are asking, Jones noted. He used two historical examples of strange behavior occurring after dramatic changes in brain anatomy: Herbert Weinstein, a 65-year-old ad executive, strangled and threw his wife out of a window in 1992 after developing a large cyst in his brain. Phineas Gage was a mid-19th century railroad worker who, according to his friends and family, became “a different person” after sustaining brain damage when his head was impaled by a steel rod.

Jones said both cases are at the heart of the debate over neuroscience’s use in the courtroom: where do responsibility and scientific evidence meet?

In the last half-century, Jones said, scientists have come a long way, from CT scans to MRI’s to more recently, Diffusion Tensor Imaging or DTI, the measurement of water in tissue to produce more accurate images. But without the knowledge and experience of what to do with these images, it’s like “trying to fix a car with an X-ray,” he said.

“We need more institutions like the (College of Law’s) Center for Law, Science & Innovation to discuss the intersection of neuroscience and law,” Jones said.

Many people involved in the conversation about the use of brain scanning fall into two categories: the fearful and the overconfident, he said.

“They fear a terrible arms race between the haves and the have-nots,” said Jones, referring to those who think research into the brain and genetics may threaten privacy and autonomy.

Others are too easily persuaded by the bright images in brain scans, said Jones, calling it the “Christmas tree effect.” He cautioned against the too-hasty condemnation and exoneration of those accused of crimes based on their brain patterns alone. 

“Knowing what someone is thinking and what he or she is thinking about are very different,” he said.

Jones encouraged parties involved in law and science to first understand the current limitations of technology. “It’s important to make a sober evaluation of a path towards legal relevance,” he said.

Once that happens, society can begin to think bigger, integrating neuroscience with evolutionary biology, genetics and even social sciences, Jones said.

“Neuroscience will have its greatest value in corroborating other practices,” Jones said. “It shouldn’t be seen as a ‘magic bullet’ solution."