Neuroscience in Law: Rethinking Free Will


  • Tajda Hančič University of Ljubljana



When sentencing a perpetrator in court, there is an important question that needs to be answered. To what extent did the perpetrator act of his own free will? The question needs to be examined through various aspects that take into consideration economic, psychological, and sociological factors. With modern technology for brain imaging, we are able to better understand how neural systems correlate with our cognitive abilities and how those are limited when pathology occurs. Cognitive neuroscience offers a new perspective on free will and it is believed that its knowledge needs to be used in court when dealing with perpetrators with brain pathology. [1]

Introduction of the Project

My (still ongoing) project is divided into two parts - theoretical and empirical. The latter is yet to be completed. In the theoretical part, the field of neuroscience and law (neurolaw [2]) was introduced. The goal was to capture the complexity of the field as much as possible. The limitations of neurolaw were also described as it does elicit many philosophical and ethical questions that are important to take into consideration when stepping into the field of neurolaw. Three research questions were used during the literature review process:

  • What is the meaning of free will in law?
  • How does brain pathology affect free will?
  • What are the limitations of neurolaw?

In the field of neurolaw, there are mainly quantitative research studies done that do not consider the complexity of the problem and therefore have many limitations.

That is why for the empirical part of the project, there were found three examples of prisoners who are sentenced for a violent act that are going to be subjects for a case study. Prisoners were selected based on the information that is publicly available. There needed to be enough information on the case and pathology of the perpetrator in order to be chosen for the case study. Concerning the literature gathered in the first part of the project, the case study should make the complexity more apparent and will try to show why it is important to add a neuroscientific perspective when dealing with perpetrators with brain pathology. Qualitative research should show that we must consider the convict’s case holistically and take into account all aspects of the circumstances that led to their actions. Among these, the neuroscientific perspective is important when considering the free will of the perpetrator – however, it should not be considered separately, but only as part of the mosaic.

Further Research

The results of the three case studies still need to be gathered to support the hypothesis of the importance of a holistic approach that was formed based on the gathered literature.


[1]   M. S. Gazzaniga and M. S. Steven, “Free Will in the Twenty-first Century,” in Neuroscience and the law: Brain, mind, and the scales of Justice, B. Garland, Ed. New York, NY: Dana Press, 2009, pp. 51–71.

[2]     T. M. Spranger, International Neurolaw a comparative analysis. Berlin, Germany: Springer Berlin, 2014.