The Mind, Made Up

Based at Vanderbilt Law School, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience Explores Brain Activity Relevant to Law.

by Grace Renshaw Owen Jones

During the seven years that Vanderbilt Law Professor Owen Jones has focused on the implications of neuroscience on law—specifically the implications of brain imaging technologies—the field of study has made the transition from a futuristic, even exotic, field of inquiry into mainstream debates. A recent case in point: Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, a 7-2 Supreme Court decision handed down in June 2011 that invalidated a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children. Arguing in dissent that the Court should instead defer to the California legislature's conclusion that violent video games were likely to harm children, Justice Stephen G. Breyer noted that "[c]utting-edge neuroscience has shown that virtual violence in video game playing results in those neural patterns that are considered characteristic for aggressive cognition and behavior."

But Jones, who holds the New York Alumni Chancellor's Chair as well as faculty appointments in Vanderbilt's biology department and its neuroscience program, has had little time to reflect on the emergence of his chosen field as the focus of major research initiatives, both domestically and internationally; he has been too busy serving as one of the architects of the field during its rise to prominence. In addition to publishing groundbreaking research on the brain activity underlying key aspects of legal decision making with a team of Vanderbilt colleagues, Jones has devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to the establishment of the new MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, which is based at Vanderbilt Law School and is supported by a $4.8 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Jones' pioneering research at the intersection of law and neuroscience had already attracted national notice when a Vanderbilt study was prominently featured in a 2007 New York Times Magazine cover story, "The Brain on the Stand." Conducted by Jones, Vanderbilt psychology professor René Marois and a team of Vanderbilt researchers, the study put subjects, including Times Magazine writer Jeffrey Rosen, into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, to reveal brain activity as the subjects made punishment decisions regarding hypothetical scenarios of various criminal acts under differing circumstances. The study was conducted at Vanderbilt's Institute of Imaging Science, which has several high-powered fMRI scanners, and its results were published the following year in the journal Neuron. "The project was exciting, because we were able to identify the brain activity underlying decisions of whether to punish someone, and if so, how much," Jones said.

When the MacArthur Foundation expressed interest in a major research initiative on law and neuroscience, Jones was one of eight experts in the field invited to meet with the Foundation's president to discuss prospects and possibilities for future research; he then worked as part of a team of scholars to develop a comprehensive proposal to form the Law and Neuroscience Project. When the Foundation funded the project in 2007, it became the first systemic effort to integrate research in law and neuroscience. It also represented an impressive collaboration among interdisciplinary researchers representing two dozen of the nation's premier research institutions, including Vanderbilt. Jones was asked to serve as co-director of a working group within the project, which was originally based at the University of California, Santa Barbara, under the direction of Michael Gazzaniga, one of the world's leading neuroscientists.

The project began with the broadly exploratory goal of addressing a basic, but important question: How will modern neuroscience affect and even potentially benefit the legal system? As the initial set of research projects were completed and began to appear in print, Jones was named the project's director, and the Law and Neuroscience Project moved to Vanderbilt. At that point, Jones recalled, "We were invited to make a separate pitch for a new and distinct Law and Neuroscience Research Network, which would select a narrower range of important topics to explore more deeply."

Filming a segment of 'Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman' in the law school's courtroom, featuring students in Vanderbilt's Mock Trial program.

Professor Owen Jones' research will be featured in a segment of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman on the Science Channel in 2012. A portion of the segment filmed in the law school's courtroom features students in Vanderbilt's Mock Trial program.

For the new research network, the MacArthur Foundation identified a much more specific goal: a set of interrelated projects aimed at applying insights gained through brain imaging to inform and improve criminal justice law, policy and practice. "Lawyers in both criminal and civil contexts are increasingly bringing neuroscientific evidence to the courtroom, offering testimony and graphic images about the structure and function of human brains," Jones said. "This has created new challenges for judges as they decide whether to admit such highly technical evidence and as they weigh the value of the evidence against its potentially prejudicial effect on juror deliberation. The dramatic expansion of new imaging and analytic techniques has also generated the hope that neuroscience, properly deployed, might help to further the goals of criminal justice. The MacArthur Foundation wanted to fund projects that explore the potential benefits in that area."

Over the next 18 months, supported by a $700,000 planning grant from the Foundation, Jones worked steadily to explore possible research projects, assemble a team of colleagues to form the core of the research network, identify specific questions that researchers could address within the three-year time horizon permitted by the grant, and distill these projects into a 400-page grant proposal that provided, among other things, the initial details of various experimental designs. "In neuroscience, three years is the blink of an eye," Jones said. "The network's broad mission is to explore the ways in which modern neuroscience might inform criminal justice law and policy. My task during the planning period was largely to winnow from the hundreds of things we might do, the handful of things we should do. And those projects had to be conceptually interrelated, legally relevant, and achievable within our time and budget horizons. I couldn't have accomplished this without the aid of a team of terrific scholars from around the country."

The set of projects Jones ultimately proposed is aimed at achieving two important goals: to help the legal system avoid misuse of neuroscientific evidence in criminal contexts, and to explore ways to apply neuroscientific insights to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. When Jones' grant proposal was accepted in summer 2011, the Law and Neuroscience Research Network became the first MacArthur Foundation Research Network ever to be based at Vanderbilt.

As the network's director, Jones now leads a team of researchers representing 10 of the nation's finest research universities, including Vanderbilt, whose projects address three major themes: the mental states of individuals, capacity and evidence. "This is a dream team of top-flight neuroscientists and lawyers," Jones said. "We'll be conducting brain imaging and other studies to learn about capacities for self-regulation, the interrelationship of cognitive and brain development in adolescents, the use of and limits of using brain-imaging techniques to detect deception and recognition, and the contexts in which neuroscientific evidence, such as fMRI brain scans, should and—equally importantly —should not be admissible in court. The Foundation's support enables coordinated and systematic exploration of the criminal justice implications, on a scale that could not otherwise be achieved."

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