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Mirror Neurons, the New Neuroscience, and the Law: Some Preliminary Observations

14 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2010  

Timothy P. O'Neill

John Marshall Law School

Date Written: September 2, 2010


V.S. Ramachandran has written that we are in the midst of a new revolution of scientific thought: the neuroscience revolution. Since 1995, a group of scientists have studied what they refer to as "mirror neurons," certain nerve cells in the brain that enable a person to see the world from another person's perspective. These scientists believe that mirror neurons may provide a neurobiological explanation for precisely how humans empathize.

This Essay first applies this insight to the role of empathy in judging. The concept of mirror neurons shows that the issue is not whether empathy has a role in judging, but rather how significant a role empathy actually plays. In reaching judicial decisions, "reason" and "emotion" complement, rather than oppose, one another. As Jonah Lehrer has stated, "Reason without emotion is impotent." Mirror neurons provide a tool for beginning a more sophisticated discussion of the nature of judging.

The Essay then turns to how mirror neurons can aid in understanding the decision-making of juries. It considers a closing argument technique called "channeling," in which the lawyer pretends to actually be the victim in the case who is describing his personal pain and suffering. Mirror neurons suggest that the profound effect this technique can have on jurors may be less rhetorical than it is neurobiological. The Essay posits that the role played by mirror neurons may indeed suggest a scientific basis for Plato's argument in "The Republic" that all imitative poets should be banned from the city.

The Essay concludes by encouraging legal theorists to consider the role neuroscience can play in legal reform.

Suggested Citation

O'Neill, Timothy P., Mirror Neurons, the New Neuroscience, and the Law: Some Preliminary Observations (September 2, 2010). Southwestern University Law Review, Vol. 39, No. 3, 2010. Available at SSRN:

Timothy P. O'Neill (Contact Author)

John Marshall Law School ( email )

315 South Plymouth Court
Chicago, IL 60604
United States

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