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>  News Releases >   2007 >   October

Dartmouth professor to co-direct $10 million National Law and Neuroscience Project

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 10/09/07 • Susan Knapp • (603) 646-3661

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

A new three-year project, with $10 million funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, will bring together distinguished scientists, legal scholars, jurists, and philosophers from across the country to help integrate new developments in neuroscience into the U.S. legal system. The Law and Neuroscience Project, which will be centered at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), aims to bridge the fields of law and science in considering how courts should deal with new brain-scanning techniques as they apply to matters of law.

Dartmouth Philosophy Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, the Hardy Professor of Legal Studies, is the co-director of this initiative. Michael Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology at UCSB, is the director and the principal investigator.

"Neuroscientific evidence has already been used to persuade jurors in sentencing decisions, and courts have admitted brain-imaging evidence during criminal trials to support pleas of insanity," said Gazzaniga in a news release. "Without a solid, mutual understanding of each others' fields, lawyers and judges cannot respond in an informed way to developments in neuroscience, and scientists cannot properly advise lawyers or recognize the legal relevance of their current and future research." Gazzaniga, a 1961 graduate of Dartmouth, also directs the Sage Center for the Study of the Mind at UCSB.

"This is not purely an academic exercise," said Sinnott-Armstrong. "We're hoping to have a real impact on the legal system. We'd like to inform lawyers and judges, bring about reform, and prevent abuses or misconceptions in court about the current understanding of neuroscience."

The project's objectives include engaging in basic research that informs legal questions, developing primers and organizing conferences for judges, and pursuing opportunities for public outreach. Three separate networks have been established to examine three areas of brain activity as they relate to criminal responsibility: abnormal brains, addiction, and decision making. Each network is comprised of legal experts, neuroscientists, and philosophers or ethicists. Sinnott-Armstrong will participate in all the networks and facilitate communication among the networks.

More than 15 universities are involved in The Law and Neuroscience Project, bringing together at least 45 experts who will contribute to the effort over the course of three years.

"We've got a two-pronged job ahead of us," said Sinnott-Armstrong. "We need to provide evidence that helps inform and inspires changes, and we've got to prevent distortions of the science that leads to inappropriate decisions in court." 

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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