Wednesday, May 27, 2015

          Professor Faigman Moderates Panel on Neuroscience and Law

          The event at the San Francisco Exploratorium addressed how new findings might influence criminal justice.
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          Pictured from left to right: Professor David L. Faigman, Professor Amanda Pustilnik, Dr. Kent Kiehl. Photo credit: Amy Snyder, © Exploratorium,

          The panel began by discussing a disturbing scenario which perfectly encapsulates the nexus of neuroscience and the law.

          "Mr. Smith,” a stepfather with no history of sexual offenses, is accused of molesting his stepdaughter. Shortly after, he is found to have a brain tumor. After the removal of the tumor, the accused claims he no longer has any irresistible sexual impulses towards young girls. The prosecution nevertheless wants to try him for his offense. A defense resting on the latest findings in neuroscience, however, could make a strong case that Mr. Smith’s impaired brain made him do it.

          His tumor had physiologically obscured his judgement. Would this absolve him of culpability?

          This and other questions were discussed at the May 21 Exploratorium panel, “Uses and Misuses of Neuroscience in Law,” moderated by Professor David L. Faigman, Director of the UCSF/UC Hastings Consortium on Law, Science and Health Policy.

          Dr. Kent Kiehl, Neurosciences Professor at the University of New Mexico, explained how Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) can now track and measure virtually all brain functions, in a sense exposing the deepest secrets of human behavior.

          “I can map out, measure and quantify cognition, emotion, attention, language, memory, age, development, impairment -- anything I want,” said Dr.Kiehl. He attested that the tests gauge an individual’s levels of impulsivity, aggression, empathic response, and so on, which are strong factors in the chances of recidivism. The panel debated: Should MRIs then be used to guide sentencing for convicted criminals?

          Whether neuroscience is relevant to the law depends to a great extent on “what you think the law is supposed to do,” according to Dr. Amanda Pustilnik, Associate Professor of Law at the University Maryland School of Law. “We have to make laws for the kinds of people we really are. The law is constrained by, and informed by, our biology.”

          Most neuroscientists have now concluded that what we imagine to be our ‘minds’ are nothing but our brains. All of our actions, thoughts, emotions, and memories are to be found in its physiology. There is no other iteration of the self that is directing what a person does, Professor Faigman explained. It’s all the brain.

          “The neurosciences over the last 25 years have arguably revolutionized our understanding of the brain in ways that have deep practical and philosophical implications for society and for the law,” he said.

          Questions from the audience broached subjects such as the juvenile justice system, white collar crime, and pharmaceuticals. The panelists stressed the importance of using neuroscience findings to guide social policy and to make a greater investment in the prevention of criminal behavior. The ability to quantify a predilection for violent or antisocial action implies an even greater social responsibility to moderate the environmental factors that impact such behavior, they agreed.

          The event was the third in a series called “In the Balance: Bringing Science to Justice” with Professor Faigman. Due to the success of the collaboration between UC Hastings and the Exploratorium, the series will resume in November of this year and continue with scheduled events in January, March, and May 2016. For information on these upcoming progams, check the Exploratorium's calendar page at

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