Sowing the seeds on responsibility

Elisa Brann, a Research Assistant at University College London, reports from a workshop on neuroscience and the law.

Breakthroughs in science have a rippling effect on all aspects of society. Recently, intriguing findings within the fields of neuroscience have shed light on how the human brain makes decisions and triggers actions. Aside from having significant consequences for psychology and philosophy, such findings could also influence a number of legal fields, potentially redefining ‘responsibility’ in the eyes of the law and consequently impacting the lives of many individuals.

In an effort to bring this important issue to the forefront of public debate, a group of experts from both scientific and legal backgrounds gathered together on Tuesday 20 October, in Senate House, London, for a half-day workshop titled ‘Action and Responsibility in Law and Neuroscience: an Interdisciplinary Perspective’. During the event, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, six speakers examined the contrasting ways in which neuroscience and law view decisions and actions, discussing how these different viewpoints should be managed, as well as how the mechanistic scientific study of human behaviour should feed into wider society.

Offering a scientific perspective, Professor Patrick Haggard, of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, gave an introduction to the current research being conducted in his lab on the sense of agency - the subjective experience of being in control of one’s actions. Using a method known as ‘mental chronometry’, his team have been able to demonstrate how subjects, when experiencing either fear or anger, also experienced a reduction in their sense of agency, weakening the binding link between their actions and the consequential outcomes. Haggard stated that whilst such experimental findings would not absolve an individual of their responsibility for a crime, it does offer evidence in support of the legal ‘loss of control’ defence.

In addition, renowned neuroscientist Professor Mike Gazzaniga, of the UCSB Sage Centre for the Study of the Mind, presented an overview of how different levels of science interact with law, highlighting how brain science cannot directly demonstrate responsibility. Rather, experimental evidence should assist decision-making processes on the higher level of society, where responsibility must be accounted for. He expressed how the influence of neuroscience on law is still in its infancy, although there is potential to develop a legal approach akin to evidence-based medicine.

Contributing the contrasting legal perspective, Professor Nicola Lacey, of the London School of Economics, talked about the cognitive conditions required for legal responsibility, presenting the question as to whether or not we need to be conscious of the relevant features of our actions in order to be held responsible. Dr Lisa Claydon, of the Open University Business School, also offered practical insight as to how criminal law approaches the issue of responsibility and the ways in which neuroscience can inform this process.

In addition to the four main speakers, two discussants, Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, and Professor David Ormerod QC, of the UCL Faculty of Law, assisted in presenting and moderating questions to the speakers, resulting in interesting debates that touched upon a number of recent topical legal cases and reforms.

This half-day meeting not only brought together a group of experts from the fields of science and law, but also welcomed practitioners, academics and students from a range of disciplines including psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience, law, and policy analysis, stimulating discussion and sowing the seeds of future neuroscientific research as well as legal policy development and reformation. 

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