As a neuroscientist, Professor of Psychology Amy Overman knows that understanding what happens in the brain can ensure meaningful learning in the classroom and better educational outcomes.

But can neuroscience impact legal education and what goes on in the courtroom? Overman and Senior Scholar and Professor of Law Steve Friedland intend to find out.

Plenty of data exists on human decision making, memory and implicit biases that are directly relevant to legal proceedings. The problem, says Overman, is that those topics aren’t part of the discussion in legal academia. Historically, how the brain works has not been considered in the legal system.

According to Friedland, that is primarily because legal education still largely relies on the Socratic method, which uses a question-and-answer process to stimulate critical thinking, reasoning and logic. The traditional goal was to teach students how to think like a lawyer. As he sees it, that method cuts out all emotion from the process, which the neuroscience indicates is not beneficial to learning. He’s teaming up with Overman to make his profession more holistic for the next generation of lawyers and, by extension, improve the justice system.

I look at neuroscience as a tool that opens doors. Insights into how the brain works apply in so many ways to what a lawyer does each day.

— Steve Friedland

After connecting with Overman, Friedland became convinced that law and lawyering need to incorporate neuroscience so law students can be healthier, better adapted and more effective. He is now applying neuroscience principles in his teaching — or conscious teaching and learning, as he calls it.

“I’ve learned from neuroscience that most of what we do is unconscious. For example, in law school you have to create schema or structures in each of the courses, but we do that implicitly a lot of the time and they’re faulty,” he says. If students are already at the beginning of class creating improper structures, they’re not really storing the information correctly, so they cannot retrieve it properly later.

“What I really want students to see is that if we can create these things consciously and we can go through a progression of thinking consciously, we’ll be better lawyers, we’ll do better in the classroom, and we’ll also be better at understanding in context,” Friedland says. “The goal in my class is not to teach students the subject, it’s to teach them good practices that they can use beyond this class for their whole life — as a lawyer or just generally. That’s where the neuroscience really helps.”

Friedland and Overman have collaborated on multiple publications and conference presentations on the subject, and plan to work on a book about bringing neuroscience to different professions. They are also delving into how to make the criminal justice system more just.

“We’ve talked about things like empathy and how that’s a really good thing to have as a lawyer to understand differing perspectives,” Friedland says. “I look at neuroscience as a tool that opens doors. Insights into how the brain works apply in so many ways to what a lawyer does each day.”

Being able to share ideas with Overman has been tremendously beneficial, Friedland says, as it has enriched not only his teaching and scholarship but how his students approach the profession. For Overman, the collaboration has allowed her to see the applied aspect of her research.

“It’s been great to share with my students, who don’t all go into neuroscience, to let them know how their experiences as a neuroscience minor or a psychology major can be used in all different domains, including law,” she says. “The future is interdisciplinary. I think that’s really where everything is going. It’s a convergence of knowledge in different fields.”