2018 Winner: Emily L Parks

NeuroLaw: Exploring the role of neuroscience in the courtroom

The emerging field of neurolaw explores how discoveries in brain science affect our justice system. Can brain scans detect a lying defendant, or even further, a “criminal mind?” Do we have free will, or can we blame the brain for our moral shortcomings?

Questions like these - at the intersection of neuroscience, philosophy, and law - drive my Writing 101 course, aptly titled Neurolaw. In this course, students reflect on themes both ancient and modern: How can science inform our understanding of our own minds? And how can that understanding, fueled by cutting-edge advances in brain imaging, inform our modern justice system? To tackle these questions, we first consider what brain science can (and cannot) reveal about the human mind. Then, we evaluate how that knowledge should be applied in the courtroom. Through these conversations, students learn to think like scientists - to question the so-called “truths” of law and of science.

In their search for “truth,” I asked students to participate in three forms of inquiry, each designed to achieve a specific pedagogical aim. First, I wanted students to learn to question scientific arguments by exploring paradoxes, claims that are seemingly contradictory, and thus, require a re-examination of an idea’s foundation. Paradoxes challenge students to approach evidence with new eyes and encourage them to look across fields for unique or divergent perspectives. Second, I wanted students to actively experience science by conducting hands-on experiments, and in doing so, to evaluate the infallibility of the scientific method. Third, I wanted students to begin to self-identify as writers and scholars by joining the academic conversation in a collaborative literature review.

The course is structured around two main projects: an analytical report and a literature review. Before beginning these high-stakes assignments, however, students first practiced reading and responding to scholarly texts using a set of weekly “critical thinking exercises” (CTEs). I designed the CTEs to scaffold students’ exploration of various topics or paradoxes in neurolaw, and to deepen their understanding of a text and its rhetorical moves. In the CTEs, students often had to make connections across disciplines, identifying critical gaps or common themes. For example, one CTE asked students to grapple with claims that adolescent impulsivity is a product of the underdeveloped teen brain versus a product of societal norms. In another CTE, students wrote a dialogue between neuroscientists and lawyers discussing how neuroscience should inform the insanity defense.

Thanks to funding from the Paletz Award for Course Enhancement, students also explored questions in neurolaw by conducting hands-on experiments. When learning about the plasticity of the brain, for example, students tested how their own brains responded to goggles that systematically distort their vision, shifting it to one side. In another experiment, students questioned the concept of free will by creating a human-to-human interface in which one student used her/his brain to control the hand motion of another. As students engaged in the scientific method, they began to experience its imperfection – to see that scientific facts and theories are not infallible. This, sometimes jarring, realization opens a new way for students to approach science, and in this case, its application to the law. Students reported that activities like these, along with the CTEs, gave them highly transferable strategies for thinking critically – strategies that they translated to future assignments both in and out of class.

For the first major project, students wrote a 3-page analytical report, evaluating the role of neuroscientific evidence in the juvenile justice system. Students built their argument using class discussion on topics such as: the limitations of neuroimaging data and its application, the mismatch between scientific and legal standards of truth, and the perceived weight that neuroscientific findings carry over other behavioral data. Over two drafts, students practiced synthesizing ideas under the support of myself and of their peers. From there, students graduated to an independent research project where they could apply these skills to their own search for truth - or in the very least, a question of interest.

For this, their second major project, students wrote a literature review synthesizing previous research on any question in neurolaw. The project was a collaborative one, requiring pairs of students to engage in the writing process together. Student wrote on topics ranging from MRI-based lie detection to neuromarkers of psychopathy to neural assessment of chronic pain. They developed their research question and response over several scaffolding assignments (e.g., a mini-speech, a project proposal, an annotated bibliography, a synthesis matrix, and various writing reflections). These assignments gave students structure to develop a new and sophisticated position.

This position was refined over three drafts, which students revised following feedback from peers, from an embedded writing consultant, and from me. Feedback was received in both individual and small-group workshops structured to give students ownership of their decisions as readers and as writers. In their final reflection letters, students shared that this collaborative approach to writing and revision increased their confidence as writers, helping them self-identify as scholars contributing to the academic dialogue.

Neurolaw, in its simplest form, asks one question: If law exists to govern behavior - behavior enabled by the brain - then what role should neuroscience play in defining our legal system? The quest to answer this question drives students to engage critically with groundbreaking neuroscientific research, with complex legal arguments, and with their own moral convictions. As student grapple with these issues in the classroom and on paper, I hope they embrace an identity as writers. I also hope that students come away from Neurolaw recognizing that science is not “truth,” but rather it is the search - the paradox and the experiment. And as scholars, they join that search!