Journal of Leadership and the Law

Neuro-Law: Eric Sievers’ Independent Project Exploring Neuroscience and the Law

Brittney BurchBy Britt Burch L’16

Individuals often enter law school eager to learn the standard law school curriculum and delve into the key courses necessary to pass the bar exam. It is seldom the case that a law student takes it upon himself to study the correlation between law and other disciplines.  However, Eric Sievers has chosen to do so. Sievers has a background in psychology and philosophy from his undergraduate institution, and this has served as a catalyst for an independent project he has pursued at Elon University School of Law.

During Sievers’ second year in law school, he became interested in the nexus between law, philosophy and cognitive neuroscience. Sievers’ newly found interest developed into research regarding neuroscience and the law, a field sometimes referred to as “neuro-law.” Sievers’ work, A Sententious Species, draws from contemporary work by cognitive scientists and experimental philosophers as well as legal scholars.  Sievers’ work critically examines an argument that has been put forth by members of the neuroscience community:  the claim that as the general public gains a more robust understanding of neuroscience, people will abandon their common-sense notions of free will and moral responsibility and as a result, the law will have to change to match the public’s new intuitions about morality.  Basically, that we will abandon morality as a result of the findings of neuroscience.  

Sievers’ rejects this claim.  He is, however, optimistic about some other, more practical ways to bring neuroscience into the courtroom. Sievers states that although neuro-law is not likely to shake the underpinnings of the law it may prove to be a useful supplement to traditional law practices.  For example, we may eventually be able to use fMRI technology to detect deception or bias.  He warns against potential misuse of neuroscience however, explaining that it can be prejudicial in the courtroom if people are prone to be swayed by brain images that are based on “bad science.”  He feels “it is important to remain excited yet realistic in our expectations when it comes to utilizing neuroscience information and technology in the courtroom.  We should remain open to new technology, yet cautious of its limitations.”  

Eric Sievers has displayed an innovative approach to the study of law by incorporating the careful analysis learned in law school with his interest in both cognitive science and philosophy.

Elon Law student Eric Sievers and professor Robert Parrish

Sievers (at left in photo) attributes the success of his project to Professor Robert Parrish (at right in photo) who served as Sievers’ faculty advisor throughout the development of his independent research.  Sievers’ approached Parrish because he believed that Professor Parrish would be supportive of such a multi-disciplinary approach, and it seemed that a paper exploring the intersections between law, philosophy and neuroscience would be a trendsetting way to satisfy the upper level writing requirement. When asked his opinion on Sievers’ research, Parrish states that “Sievers’ work puts him on the cutting edge of a fascinating new field of scholarly inquiry that may have far-reaching ramifications regarding how we engage in the practice of criminal law and punish those who commit crimes.”

Elon University School of Law is not only producing future attorneys, it is molding future innovators and interdisciplinary scholars that are leading the way in legal education.