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Archive for the ‘neurolaw’ Category

I don’t know if it was divine intervention, or the kinship of all living things, but I tell you, Jerry, at that moment…I was a marine biologist!

There’s a debate underway between two schools of marine biologists. The received wisdom is that the brains of whales and dolphins evolved to promote cognitive advantages. The challenging hypothesis is that cetacean brains evolved to prevent heat loss due to changes in water temperatures, and their size cannot be taken as evidence of complex cognition.

Here’s the paper that started the controversy:

It’s governing logic is simple. Absent evidence for complex cetacean cognition, parsimony in scientific explanation – whether you call it simplicity or Occam’s razor – demands a more minimal hypothesis.

However, this is a politically and emotionally loaded issue, so it’s only to be expected that a challenge to whales’ cognitive ability will provoke a response. That’s what happened with the publication of a recent paper in PLoS Biology, just in time for the meeting next week of the International Whaling Commission. The paper has a clear, declarative title:

Their’s is a two part argument, and it attacks the premise of Manger’s argument from parsimony: cetacean neuroanatomy is indeed complex enough to support cognition like that of terrestrial mammals, and cetaceans do indeed demonstrate complex cognitive behaviour.

Perhaps I’m missing something, because Manger’s attempt to exclude the possibility of complex cetacean cognition seems to be a red herring. We can have it both ways: complex cognition and temperature regulation do not need to be mutually exclusive evolutionary developments.

Note: I’ve tagged this with ‘neurolaw’ because this has implications for international law governing the whale hunt. It’s a good reminder that neurolaw isn’t just about humans.

(Hat tip to Science and Consciousness Review for mention of the PLoS article.)

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Quirks and Quarks is the CBC’s science show, a hackneyed beast with a tendency towards covering dinosaurs, animal sex, and the occasional environmental hot potato. It’s popular science journalism but not science news – it can take weeks before a science story appears in their line-up, although they were among the first to talk about the weirdness of ducks’ reproductive organs.

Whatever complaints I might have about their programming, they get it right when it comes to putting their shows online. Live broadcast, archived shows, podcast, it’s all there for download – in mp3 and ogg format, no less – and provides off-site links to researchers’ websites and publications.

Other shows on Canada’s public broadcaster should have open access programming like this, and not just because it lets me link to the following show, broadcast today but already archived on their website:

Neuroscience and the Law has interviews with Marc Hauser on moral decisions and Frank Tong on ‘mind reading’ applications which might detect lies and object recognition. These are bracketed by comments from law and biology professor Owen Jones and Canadian neuroscientist Lesley Fellows.

Despite the corny ‘you are the jury’ presentation, this series of interviews has an advantage over the New York Times’ article, Brain on the Stand: the researchers have more time to talk about their work and its implications. It also helps that the host, Bob McDonald, is an excellent interviewer and can walk a general audience through complicated science.

It’s worth a listen, even if you’ve never wondered about the pronunciation of ventromedial prefrontal portex, so click through to the audio archive…

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Where’s a researcher to go if they are interested in neuroethics, neurolaw and moral cognition? Follow the publications, of course.

I’ve assembled a quick list, in no particular order. So far, it has heavy emphasis on the places where empirical research is being conducted.

In the USA:

In Canada:

Note: In Canada, neuroethics is principally concerned with legal and bioethical evaluations of neurotechnology. To my knowledge, these centers are not conducting research on the neurobiology of moral decision-making.

This list isn’t comprehensive, so make known in the comments any neuroethics or neurolaw programs.

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Two fun articles come from today’s issue of Sleep. They discuss the perils of decision-makers who don’t get enough sleep or sleep in inapropriate places.

  • The Case of ‘Judge Nodd’ and Other Sleeping Judges – Media, Society and Judicial Sleepiness (press release)
  • Sleep Deprivation Elevates Expectation of Gains and Attenuates Response to Losses Following Risky Decisions (press release)

Both articles are embargoed, hence the links to press releases.

The article about judges who fall sleep in the courtroom made me think of the reasoning capacities of a tired and overworked judiciary, and how neurolaw might shed some light on this (grey) matter.

There has been a lot of public and scholarly discussion about neurolaw, but so far most of it is about ablating criminal responsibility by reducing the decision-making capacities of the accused. Surely there is room for some analysis of the decision-making that takes place during the trial, and in the minds of those who make choices of fact and law.

I suspect neuroscience has a lot to tell us about how judges and juries think about justice, rights and responsibility, and procedural fairness. It might even address the question: Does legal training affect the neurology of decision-making?

The psychology of justice is an undeveloped field. It tends towards psycho-economic discussions of deservedness and distributive justice, analyzing perceptions of fair allocations of wealth. Perhaps the recent interest in neuroethics and neurolaw will invigorate research into other questions of psychology relevant to law and society. For a research program made-to-order, consult:

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Writers with the New York Times have a strange sense of priority. A story about Peter Braunstein, a man who has admitted to posing as a firefighter to enable a vicious sexual assault, begins with a critique of his writing skills:

His prose was dense, sarcastic, with intellectual overtones.

That aside, the article is a fascinating look at how a lawyer is using neuroscience to deflect criminal responsibility from his client.

The defense has conceded that he committed the crime, and is working on a risky defense that will combine traditional psychiatric testimony with the burgeoning field of “neurolaw,” which holds that there is a biological basis for behavior.

With a free subscription, you can read the full article, Disease Drove Sex Attack, Defense Says.

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