Reference Work Entry

Handbook of Neuroethics

pp 441-458


Mind, Brain, and Law: Issues at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Personal Identity, and the Legal System

  • Jennifer ChandlerAffiliated withFaculty of Law, Common Law, University of Ottawa Email author 


The objective of this chapter is to consider how emerging neuroscience might affect the way that the concept of personal identity is understood and used in the law. This topic is explored using two well-established theoretical approaches to the concept of personal identity. One approach considers the physical and/or psychological criteria for establishing the boundaries of one single personal identity at a given time (synchronic numerical personal identity) or the continuity of one personal identity over time (diachronic numerical personal identity). Another approach conceives of personal identity as “narrative identity” or the self-conception that a person creates from the sum of their experiences, values, and psychological attributes.

A concern with what makes two apparent beings the same person at one point in time (synchronic identity) brings into focus questions about how the law should respond to cases of accused persons with dissociative identity disorder. Neuroimaging and psychological research into dissociative identity disorder may one day alter the conceptualization of this disorder in ways that may affect the legal response to determining criminal responsibility in such cases. Meanwhile, a concern with changes in the “self” brings into focus a range of legal issues posed by emerging neurological interventions. The chapter offers three illustrative examples drawn from criminal and civil law: (1) What are the limits on legally coerced consent to “self”-changing rehabilitative brain interventions in the criminal context? (2) Should there be an expanded risk disclosure discussion during the informed consent process for medical treatment that may alter the “self”? (3) Who might be legally responsible for illegal behavior committed following “self”-changing brain interventions?