News and Commentary Archive

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


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

Litigating Lineups: Why the American Justice System Is Keeping a Close Eye on Witness Identification

Studies have shown that memory and recall are more fallible than failsafe. That finding undermines eyewitness identifications—a critical prosecution mainstay—revealing them as far more fragile evidence than imagined. Just ask Rickey Dale Wyatt of Dallas, Texas. On January 4, 2012, he was released from prison after serving 31 years of a 99-year sentence for a rape he did not commit.

Police were sure that a single rapist had committed a cluster of rapes when they arrested Wyatt for three assaults.

The third victim, who had been grabbed from behind and dragged at knifepoint to a dimly lit area, was the first to identify Wyatt. Ultimately, all three picked Wyatt from photographic lineups. All had described their rapists as being between 170 and 200 pounds, between 5’9” and 6’, and as having no facial hair. Wyatt is 5’6”, was close to 140 pounds—and he had abundant facial hair and a mustache.

While Victim No. 3 identified Wyatt in the photo lineup, she had failed to do so in a live lineup (which wasn’t recorded). That failure, and knowledge of the lineup’s very existence, was withheld from Wyatt’s defense attorney…

Source: Pacific Standard, Sept. 27, 2012. By Sue Russell.
[Read full article at]

Neural Correlates of Reactivation and Retrieval-Induced Distortion

ABSTRACT: Reactivation of recently acquired information can strengthen memory storage and likely contributes to memory consolidation. Retrieval (generating information about prior events) may improve memory storage because it entails reactivation. Alternatively, retrieval may promote storage of retrieved information, and, if retrieval is inaccurate, subsequent recall could be distorted by the retrieved information. If retrieval modifies memory storage, as hypothesized, neural signals associated with accurate retrieval at that time may be distinct from neural signals associated with the degree of repeated retrieval error evident at some later time. We tested this prediction using a 3-session protocol. During session 1, people learned object-location associations to criterion and completed a cued-recall test in which locations were recalled upon viewing objects. During session 2, an electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded during cued recall for a subset of the associations. During session 3, cued recall was tested for all associations. Retrieval improved storage, in that recall at session 3 was superior for objects tested in session 2 compared with those not tested. Retrieval-induced distortion was revealed in session 3 for those objects tested in session 2, in that those objects were generally placed closer to locations retrieved at session 2 relative to original study locations. EEG analyses revealed positive potentials (400–700 ms) associated with relatively accurate recall at session 2. Memory updating was reflected in positive potentials after 700 ms that differentially predicted the degree to which recall promoted storage of the session-2-retrieved location. These findings demonstrate unique neurocognitive processing whereby memories are updated with information produced during retrieval.

Source: The Journal of Neuroscience, August 29, 2012. By Donna J. Bridge and Ken A. Paller.
[Read the full paper at]

The Double-Edged Sword: Does Biomechanism Increase or Decrease Judges’ Sentencing of Psychopaths?

ABSTRACT: We tested whether expert testimony concerning a biomechanism of psychopathy increases or decreases punishment. In a nationwide experiment, U.S. state trial judges (N = 181) read a hypothetical case (based on an actual case) where the convict was diagnosed with psychopathy. Evidence presented at sentencing in support of a biomechanical cause of the convict’s psychopathy significantly reduced the extent to which psychopathy was rated as aggravating and significantly reduced sentencing (from 13.93 years to 12.83 years). Content analysis of judges’ reasoning indicated that even though the majority of judges listed aggravating factors (86.7%), the biomechanical evidence increased the proportion of judges listing mitigating factors (from 29.7 to 47.8%). Our results contribute to the literature on how biological explanations of behavior figure into theories of culpability and punishment.

Source: Science, Aug. 17, 2012. By Lisa G. Aspinwall, Teneille R. Brown, James Tabery.
[Full paper at]

Brain Science’s Day in Court

…Writing in the journal Science, Lisa Aspinwall and colleagues at the University of Utah examined the effects of neurobiological knowledge on sentencing decisions of judges. In the study, 181 judges were told about a hypothetical case (based on fact) involving a man convicted of an appalling violent crime; the judges were asked to decide on a prison term for him.

The information they were given came in two versions. One group of judges was told that the man had been diagnosed by a variety of experts as an incurable “psychopath” — a psychiatric label describing a certain kind of predator who has a reptilian, remorseless indifference to the suffering of others. The second group was given that same information plus information about what specifically scientists had found when they studied the man’s brain.

The brain studies turned up two aberrant things in the hypothetical criminal: “atypical function” of a brain region called the amygdala, and abnormally low activity of a brain enzyme called MAO-alpha. This wasn’t just make-believe science. Both abnormalities have been implicated by neuroscientists as playing a role in aggression, and both have been cited in court during criminal trials (although at this point the science isn’t remotely advanced enough to accurately predict violent behavior from examining amygdaloid function or MAO-alpha activity).

Introducing neurological information like this could potentially generate two very different subtexts. The first one is tailor-made for a prosecutor: “The guy’s brain is broken and no one can repair it, which means he is a continued threat and must be isolated from society.” The other is defense-friendly: “The guy’s brain is broken; how can you hold him criminally responsible for behavior he cannot control?”…

Source: Los Angeles Times, Oct. 1, 2012. By Robert M. Sapolsky.

[Read the full article on]

[See the Science paper here.]