Bridging Developmental Neuroscience and the Law: Child-Caregiver Relationships

Ross A. Thompson

Volume 63, Issue 6, 1443-1468

Advances in neuroscience are changing understanding of the biological foundations of human development and have implications for legal analysis. As with any period of rapid scientific progress, however, new ideas are subject to misinterpretation and errors in application. This Article offers guidance on how to avoid such problems and consider carefully the applications of developmental neuroscience to legal policy and practice, with a particular emphasis on caregiver-child relationships. Three principles are discussed. First, the most confident applications of developmental neuroscience to legal policy occur when the conclusions of neuroscience are consistent with those of behavioral research. This is because their convergence across different levels of analysis strengthens confidence in their validity. Concerning caregiver-child relationships, studies of brain and behavior are consistent in emphasizing the importance of early experience, the significance of caregiving quality for buffering stress, and the enduring consequences of early adversity. Second, complex interactions between brain maturation and experience over time are likely to be typical, not exceptional, in the development of competencies relevant to legal policy and practice. The development of “responsibility” is, for example, a dynamic process involving maturation of multiple brain areas interacting with experiential history. Third, applications of developmental neuroscience to law and policy must take seriously the importance of brain plasticity and its implications for children’s behavioral adaptation to new opportunities. Neuroplasticity accounts for the efficacy of preventive and intervention efforts targeted to children in adversity, but it also underscores the biological and economic benefits of beginning early in life when brain plasticity is greatest.

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