This Essay addresses recent research and commentary regarding the potential contributions of cognitive neuroscience to law. For the first time, cognitive neuroscience methods have been brought to bear on the Model Penal Code’s (MPC’s) culpable–mental state categories through a neuroimaging study seeking to identify the neural correlates of knowledge and recklessness. Subsequently, this study has been presented as a paradigm for utilizing cognitive neuroscience to answer important legal questions. However, the original experiment appears to suffer serious experimental-design and conceptual limitations, belying subsequent advocacy for the legal utility of cognitive neuroscience. This Essay methodically details these limitations and argues that the original study does not seem to have actually elicited knowledge or recklessness in subjects or, even if it did, did not elicit them in discrete enough fashion to permit identification of the mental states’ neural correlates. The Essay also contends, more broadly, that cognitive neuroscience appears inapt for investigating the propriety of the MPC’s mens rea delineations since these are articulated in purely psychological-behavioral terms: mental states are the only requisites. Only psychological-behavioral manifestations provide base evidence of mental states’ existences. And psychological-behavioral research, not cognitive neuroscience, is the most direct way to investigate the practical, moral, and legal appropriateness of the MPC’s mental states by illuminating how individuals experience them, identify them in others, or employ them to dispense blame and punishment. Ultimately, recent cognitive neuroscience research does not appear to reveal anything of legal significance regarding the MPC. And, more broadly and contrary to recent assertions, cognitive neuroscience has substantial limitations when it comes to producing legally relevant information. Going forward, psychological-behavioral research should be given primacy in cognitive science investigations of MPC concepts. Cognitive neuroscience studies, on the other hand, should be treated with exceptional skepticism.
Andreas Kuersten & John D. Medaglia, Neuroscience and the Model Penal Code's Mens Rea Categories, 71 Duke Law Journal Online 53-86 (2021)