Neuroscience and Criminal Behavior

Neuroscience is still in its infancy, but the study of the brain’s affect on human behavior may have a huge impact on the judicial system in the future, renowned neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga told the audience at a recent Columbia Law School Reunion 2012 event. 

Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology and director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, led a session titled “Are We Ready for Neuroscience in the Courtroom?” He shared his expertise on the subject with members of the Stone Circle, graduates of classes from 50 years ago or more, including 50th reunion attendees from the Class of 1962.

During the June 8 event, Gazzaniga discussed the concept of personal responsibility when neuroscience has shown that much of human behavior is predetermined. He described recent research involving prisoners in Arizona that compared imaging of the prisoners’ brains with those of a control group. The comparison of images showed heightened psychopathology among the prisoners, he said. “Their brains are different,” he noted. “We’re going to have to deal with tough questions, such as whether punishment is a good idea, or whether we can treat these prisoners.” He said lawyers and members of the scientific community can and should question these issues and encourage public discourse on the subject.

In a question-and-answer period following his talk, Gazzaniga was asked about the impact of brain science on the legal definition of insanity and whether natural predilections can be changed through education. “Biases can be modified by culture, but let’s recognize that these things are built into us,” he said. Punishment for a defendant with schizophrenia shouldn’t be entirely a legal matter, Gazzaniga said, adding that other professionals should also be involved in deciding what to do in such scenarios.

But Gazzaniga assured his audience that while 99.999 percent of what the brain does is automatic, human beings do have free will, and they operate under a social contract that makes them responsible for their actions. “The brain is automatic, but people are free,” he said. “No matter what we have discovered, no matter what we will discover, there is no threat to the concept of personal responsibility.”

Gazzaniga has authored 25 books about the brain, including Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, published last year. His long and distinguished teaching and mentoring career has included the launch and development of centers for cognitive neuroscience at the University of California-Davis and Dartmouth College, and the supervision and mentorship of many young scientists. In addition, Gazzaniga founded the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute and the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, of which he is the editor-in-chief emeritus. He received a Ph.D. in psychobiology from the California Institute of Technology.