Consciousness and the law

Yesterday my piece on consciousness and the law was published in Aeon, an exciting new online magazine focussing on ideas and culture.

As fits this particular canvas, the article is painted with a broad brush, and there wasn’t room to go into detail about any particular study. But for those who are interested in the details, I’ve included below some links to the original sources along with the relevant quotes from the Aeon piece.

To quote a recent article by the psychologist Jonathan Schooler and colleagues ‘we are often startled by the discovery that our minds have wandered away from the situation at hand’.

Schooler J et al. (2011) Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind. Trends Cog Sci 15(7):319-26

…the Court of Appeal opined that the defence of automatism should not have been on the table in the first place, due to a driver without ‘awareness’ retaining some control of the car.

Attorney General’s Reference (No. 2 of 1992)

In the early 1970s, Lawrence Weiskrantz and Elizabeth Warrington discovered a remarkable patient… studies on similar patients with ‘blindsight’ confirmed that these responses relied on a neural pathway quite separate from the one that usually passes through the occipital lobes

Weiskrantz L et al. (1974) Visual capacity in the hemianopic field following a restricted occipital ablation. Brain 97(4):709-28.

Dodds C et al. (2002) A temporal/nasal asymmetry for blindsight in a localisation task: evidence for extrageniculate mediation. Neuroreport 13(5):655-8.

…a key difference between conscious and unconscious vision is activity in the prefrontal cortex…

Other research implies that consciousness emerges when there is the right balance between connectivity between brain regions, known as the ‘information integration’ theory.

…anesthesia may induce unconsciousness by disrupting the communication between brain regions.

Dehaene S & Changeux JP (2011) Experimental and theoretical approaches to conscious processing. Neuron 70(2):200-27.

Tononi G (2005) Consciousness, information integration, and the brain. Prog Brain Res 150:109-26.

Alkire MT et al (2008) Consciousness and anesthesia. Science 322(5903):876-80.

A series of innovative experiments have begun to systematically investigate mind-wandering… Under the influence of alcohol, people become more likely to daydream and less likely to catch themselves doing so.

Christoff K (2012) Undirected thought: neural determinants and correlates. Brain Res 428:51-9.

Sayette MA et al. (2009) Lost in the sauce: the effects of alcohol on mind-wandering. Psychol Sci 20(6):747-52.


5 thoughts on “Consciousness and the law

  1. Congratulations on your piece on Consciousness and the Law, which I just read in Aeon. I am a neuroscientist in retirement, and have been dismayed at the shallow argumentation by means of which some of my colleagues draw sensationalist conclusions regarding the bearing of neuroscience on legal theory and practice. You show a better understanding of that connection than the sensation mongers, and I am very glad your piece has appeared in an accessible forum. I look forward to follow your work, and am signing up for e-mail notifications from you (the self and consciousness happens to be one of my special interests in neuroscience, for which see Merker 2007, Beh&BrSci 30, 63-134)

    • Dear Bjorn,

      Many thanks for your kind comments on the Aeon article. I am glad you enjoyed it. I agree with you that broad-brush claims made about neurolaw often disregard the day-to-day workings and purpose of the legal system. Hopefully that will change as both sides (law and neuroscience) learn a little more about each other’s discipline.


  2. Interesting article. I’ve printed it out to tuck into both my mind and Wegner’s “Illusion of Conscious Will”.
    In my own essay, “Free as we need to be” (see my website) I go further than most by treating the whole idea of “justice” as questionable, if not fraudulent.

  3. Dear Harold,

    Thanks for your comment. I think Wegner’s book has a lot to offer here. It is one of the few lucid accounts of why our *sense* of free will matters much more for responsibility than metaphysical considerations.


  4. Pingback: Consciousness and the law | The Elusive Self | Brain Through The Life Course

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