News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.

Mission

The speed of technology in neuroscience as it impacts ethical and just decisions in the legal system needs to be understood by lawyers, judges, public policy makers, and the general public. The Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior is an academic and professional resource for the education, research, and understanding of neuroscience and the law. Read more

Less Guilty by Reason of Neurological Defect

…Rage attacks are violent outbursts grossly disproportionate to the circumstances. Information about sources of frustration or irritation—like the sting of a slap—converge upon a primitive structure nestled deep in the brain stem called the periaqueductal gray. This region is responsible for coordinating essential evolutionary behaviors, from nursing young to self-defense to aggressive attacks. Information from this structure is fed upward to the amygdala and hypothalamus, which refine and coordinate body responses that accompany moments of fury. Among people who are particularly emotionally volatile, surges of violent rage orchestrated by this circuit can be especially dramatic.

Although the behaviors associated with rage attacks—carefully aimed blows, perhaps the use of a weapon—seem as though they must be consciously coordinated and deliberate, this is an illusion. Even complex behaviors that emerge during rage attacks can result from simple electrical stimulation to any of the primitive structures that make up the rage circuit. A jolt of electricity to the right part of the hypothalamus can turn a placid cat into a hissing, clawing demon, attacking nearly any creature within reach. Turn off the current, and the cat returns to its placid state.

Imagine your own cat attacked you during an electrically induced rage attack. Would you blame Fluffy for her behavior? Would you punish her?

These seem like absurd questions until we consider cases of humans whose rage attacks result not from electrodes implanted in the hypothalamus or amygdala, but from tumors or cysts in these regions. In one famous case, a man named Mark Larribus attacked and nearly killed his girlfriend’s young daughter after her crying sent him into a fit of fury. A psychiatrist determined that the frequency and severity of his rage attacks had been increasing over several months and ordered a CAT scan, which showed a tumor compressing his amygdala and hypothalamus. The tumor was removed, and Larribus’ rage attacks, which he described as feeling as uncontrollable as a car skidding across a patch of ice, ceased, and he was cleared of all charges. He was not blamed or punished. If you think this is a fair outcome, you probably believe that it is unfair to punish someone for even heinous violence if that violence results from a clear brain abnormality….

Source: Slate, Oct. 16, 2012. By Abigail Marsh.
[Read the full article at Slate]

Do We Have Free Will?

Maybe you remember Charles Whitman, the man who shot and killed 13 people from the top of the University of Texas Tower in 1966 after murdering his wife and mother the day before.

He left a typed note in his home, which police found the day after the shootings. He said he had been overwhelmed recently with violent impulses and had no rational explanation for killing his wife or the others. He had even gone to see a psychiatrist and suspected that something had changed in his brain. He requested that an autopsy be conducted to find out.

He was right. He had a nickel-size tumor pressing on his amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotions such as aggression and fear and that, when damaged, causes social and emotional disturbances. Whitman’s crimes were likely a result of the damage being done to his brain by the tumor.

Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine who directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, sees Whitman’s story as only one of numerous instances in which criminal behaviors can be linked to conditions involving the brain. Moreover, stories like these push researchers – scientists, philosophers, theologians and others – to question a long-held belief about human beings that grounds our legal system and our notions of right and wrong: the belief in free will, or freedom of choice….

 

Source: Houston Chronicle, Sept. 13, 2012. By Jill Carroll.
[Read the full article at Chron.com]

Red Flags: Early Warnings of Wrongful Convictions

…Presuming the innocent guilty, says Drizin, often stems from flawed interrogation training. Much of law enforcement personnel’s training convinces them that they are tantamount to human lie detectors (see more on this in this series’ next installment) with superior abilities to “read” guilt or innocence from a suspect’s emotional affect or body language. Deception research by social scientists like Bella DePaulo, however, show otherwise.

If detectives lock in on a suspect too early, cautions Itiel Dror of theUniversity College of London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, tunnel vision kicks in along with “escalation of commitment” to their conclusions. And through confirmation bias, the brain seeks facts that confirm existing beliefs while it discounts or disregards information that conflicts.

Meanwhile, many errors in an investigation are effectively buried before a case goes to trial, says Drizin. They’re simply invisible to the types and level of scrutiny a case typically receives as it works its way through the system….

Source: Pacific Standard, Sept. 6, 2012. By Sue Russell.
[Read the full article at PSMag.com]

Human Lie Detectors: The Death of the Dead Giveaway

We’ve all been lied to, and most of us have a high opinion of our ability to tell a lie from the truth. Yet research repeatedly shows that confidence to be misplaced and that judges, customs inspectors, and yes, detectives, make lousy lie detectors.

Those in law enforcement are trained to “read” body language, affect, facial expressions, mannerisms, and ways of speaking, and to believe that they can trust their gut. They learn that if a suspect averts their gaze, touches their nose, chews a fingernail, strokes the back of their head, slouches or fidgets, they are likely lying and thus, guilty.

Virtually all scientific research finds
 this mindset is counterproductive and even lowers the accuracy of judgments. People under stress—being wrongly accused certainly qualifies—can behave in ways impossible to distinguish from those who are lying. Yet the accused may be convicted in the court of public opinion—or worse—in large part because they don’t react to tragedy or the loss of a loved one as others want them to or expect….

Source: Pacific Standard, Sept. 13, 2012. By Sue Russell.
[Read the full article at PSMag.com]

Study Finds Memories Can Change with Each Recall; Researcher Sees Criminal Justice Implications

A Northwestern University researcher has found that memory retrieval may be like the game of telephone.

Just as a whispered message changes with each retelling, memories can change when they are recalled multiple times, according to the study by Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. A press release summarizes the findings published in the journal Neuroscience.

“A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event—it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it,” Bridge said in the press release. “Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.”

Bridge says her findings have implications for eyewitness accounts in criminal trials. “Maybe a witness remembers something fairly accurately the first time because his memories aren’t that distorted,” she said. “After that it keeps going downhill.”…

Source: ABA Law Journal, Sept. 24, 2012. By Debra Cassens Weiss.
[Read full article at ABAJournal.com]
[More about Journal of Neuroscience paper here.]