July 3, 2022

Neuroscience oversimplifies, says Harvard law prof

Criticism of ‘neuroeverything’ craze

A fascination with the brain, and the conviction that all of human behaviour can ultimately be attributed to neuronal activity has led to disciplines as varied as neuroethics, neurotheology, neuroeconomics, neurohistory, neuroaesthetics, and even neurolaw. However, this last has copped a pasting in an article by a lecturer at Harvard Law School. In a stinging critique of the "neuroeverything craze" Amanda Pustilnik argues that talk of the neurobiology of violence is just the latest chapter in law’s ill-starred love affair with the biological roots of criminality. She links today’s use of neuroscience in criminal law to discredited disciplines like phrenology (criminal bumps on your head), Lombrosian biological criminality (criminals look sub-human), or lobotomies (an ice pick in a criminal’s frontal lobe will fix him up quick).

Reducing all human behaviour to changes in the brain is not just philosophically questionable, contends Ms Pustilnik, it fails to take into account how the brain works. "The brain’s plasticity literally shows how aspects of the mind/brain respond to and are products of broader contextual conditions -– rather than merely being rooted in fixed givens."

Furthermore, she argues, the neuroscience craze in law fails to take into account other factors in criminal behaviour. "The social, historical, and economic have no role in this account of violence. Even psychological considerations about why people do what we do (including why some people break the law) would seem to vanish; rather, to the extent psychology is relevant at all, it merely is a kind of ‘reverse-engineering’ to figure out what the ‘machine [of the brain] was designed to do.’" ~ Social Science Research Network