How Neuroscience is Changing Legal Decisions

Neuroscience Neurolaw Law Legal Decisions

This is Your Brain

The law treats people a certain way based upon their understanding of right and wrong, and their relative sophistication in comprehending legal documents. Much as an illiterate person may not be expected to agree to an 11-page contract drafted by a lawyer, a 7-year-old may not be treated the same as a 57-year-old. Similarly, we have special court proceedings for the elderly to be adjudged incapable of handling their own affairs, fiscally or physically.

Current Science is Changing the Way We Understand the Brain

Brain science—neurolaw—is an evolving field. For instance, our current system in most states treats criminal offenders differently if they are under the age of majority (usually 18) at the time a crime is committed then it would if they were deemed adults (18 or over) at the time.

But the ability of scientists to actually track and map how the brain reacts and comprehends things like right and wrong is evolving rapidly. For instance, using MRI scans, scientists can map how a control brain reacts compared to a “guilty” or “damaged” brain. Similarly, scientists can assist lawyers in demonstrating the different patterns evident in guilty adult brains versus the not-fully-formed teenage brains.

Credit Where Credit is Due

I heard an interesting discussion of this new technology and its applications on NPR’s Innovation Hub program. That show recently featured Francis Shen, Associate Law Professor at the University of Minnesota and Executive Director of Education for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law.

Shen discussed how current research shows the human brain does not complete the maturation process until the mid-20s. Thus, the bifurcated system of our criminal process—juveniles and adults with nothing in between—doesn’t fit how brains actually work. He suggested a third rung of justice for those in their late teens to early to mid-20s. San Francisco is trying this with a “Young Adult Court,” which addresses those in the 17-25 year range and treats them differently from both juveniles and adults. Professor Shen freely admits there is a long way to go before the research is complete and it is determined how well this “third way” of justice works in real application.

Brain Science Show(n) and Tell in Court

Needless to say, lawyers can call experts in the field to testify in court about the meaning of these MRI tests or to interpret what the party on trial may have understood or intended, but it is not yet fully accepted by courts. States differ on what they require for expert testimony to be accepted (Illinois uses the Frye standard, which requires any scientific evidence to be generally accepted in the scientific community).

Two significant potential problems with scientific brain evidence is the costs involved in hiring an expert witness to testify in court and the worry that complex testimony is ignored or not fully comprehended by the jurors. Yes, the brains of jurors might not be ready for the testimony about how brains actually work.

There Ought To Be A Law

Neurolaw also may have application to civil law. Take, for example, a person who claims they witnessed a horrific car crash. They weren’t injured themselves, but claim they are traumatized and now have some malady, like PTSD. Can they sue the at-fault party for their emotional distress?

At least in Illinois, these types of actions are disfavored. Generally, without a physical injury yourself, it is very difficult to pursue a claim for either Intentional- or Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED or NIED). There are some cases suggesting that if you are within the “zone of danger,” you may be able to pursue this (for example, you observe someone losing a limb at close range).

Shen makes the argument and notes a current test case, where the argument is being made that the brain is a physical part of the body and therefore a psychological injury is a physical injury. For example, since an MRI can actually demonstrate a brain injury present for someone with PTSD, it can be quantified and is thus not merely psychological.

Obviously, this relatively nascent scientific area will further develop over time and eventually, our laws will be retooled to dovetail with the science.

Contact a Personal Injury Lawyer

If you have the misfortune of tripping, slipping, or falling, contact a lawyer immediately.


  • Science is changing the way we understand, prosecute, and punish criminal behavior
  • We are in the early stages of this scientific study, so it may be awhile before “young adult” courts are commonplace.
  • Civil law may eventually come to terms with emotional injuries to the brain being considered physical injuries.
  • If you are accused of a crime at any age, you should consult a lawyer immediately.
  • If you are injured in any way, you should contact a lawyer immediately

Contact Chicago Personal Injury Lawyer Stephen Hoffman

As in all cases involving injury and potential liability, immediately get medical treatment, report the crash to police and your own insurance company, and contact a personal injury lawyer.

If you've been in an accident and have questions, contact Chicago personal injury attorney Stephen L. Hoffman for a free consultation at (773) 944-9737. Stephen has nearly 30 years of legal experience and has collected millions of dollars for his clients. He has been named a SuperLawyer, has a 10.0 rating on Avvo, and is BBB A+ accredited. He is also an Executive Level Member of the Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce.

Stephen handles personal injury and workers' compensation claims on a contingency fee basis, which means you don’t pay anything upfront and he only gets paid if you do. Don’t wait another day, contact Stephen now.

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