The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Bioethics Commission Urges Neuroscientists to Participate in Legal Processes, and Cautions Against Hype

Earlier this year, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) released the second of its two-volume report on neuroscience and ethics—Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society (Gray Matters, Vol. 2). One of the topics it examined in depth was the application of neuroscientific evidence and concepts to legal and policy decision making processes. Neuroscience research and evidence have the potential to add value to the law by improving accuracy, decreasing errors, and helping us gain a deeper understanding of human motivation and behavior. However, the application of this novel and advancing science to the centuries-old legal institution is not without ethical and practical challenges.

In Gray Matters, Vol. 2, the Bioethics Commission made several recommendations to address ethical and practical challenges and maximize the potential value of neuroscience to the legal system. In particular, the Bioethics Commission recommended that:

Neuroscientists should participate in legal decision-making processes and policy development to ensure the accurate interpretation and communication of neuroscience information.

Neuroscience researchers are in the best position to explain scientific concepts, research results, and limitations of neurotechnologies to a legal audience. Judges and jurors need to understand how neurotechnologies work, what their limitations are, and how to accurately translate and apply research findings to a legal setting. Neuroscientists have several options for engagement. For example, they can act as expert witnesses in court, act as consultants for legal teams, or help attorneys write briefs. In addition, neuroscientists also can assist in policy making at local, state, and federal levels, by ensuring that their research findings are accurately explained to legislators and policy makers.

Additionally, the Bioethics Commission recommended that:

Neuroscientists, attorneys, judges, and members of the media should not overstate or rely too heavily on equivocal neuroscientific evidence to draw conclusions about behavior, motivations, intentions, or legal inferences.

This recommendation reflects one of the primary themes of the Gray Matters report—the imperative to mitigate hype and exaggeration. Hyperbole permeates conversations about the intersection of neuroscience and society. Attention-grabbing headlines exaggerate research findings, and set unrealistic expectations. Hype is especially prevalent in conversations and debates about the application of neuroscience to the legal system. Media reports often suggest that neuroscience might fundamentally alter legal decision making and overturn existing norms and notions of blameworthiness and responsibility. But these claims are overblown. Unrealistically high expectations can lead to a loss of public trust when those expectations are not borne out. Many stakeholders share the responsibility to avoid and minimize hype, including neuroscientists, attorneys, judges, and members of the media, among others. To realize the potential value of neuroscience’s application to the law, we must not put the cart before the horse.

Hype and its associated consequences are discussed at length throughout both volumes of Gray Matters. That report and all other Bioethics Commission materials are available at


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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Learn more about the 2009 - 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.