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

The Reckoning

Adam and Peter Lanza

Peter Lanza’s new house, on a secluded private road in Fairfield County, Connecticut, is an attic room overflowing with shipping crates of what he calls “the stuff.” Since the day in December, 2012, when his son Adam killed his own mother, himself, and twenty-six people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, strangers from across the world have sent thousands upon thousands of letters and other keepsakes: prayer shawls, Bibles, Teddy bears, homemade toys; stories with titles such as “My First Christmas in Heaven”; crosses, including one made by prison inmates. People sent candy, too, and when I visited Peter, last fall, he showed me a bag of year-old caramels. He had not wanted to throw away anything that people sent. But he said, “I was wary about eating anything,” and he didn’t let Shelley Lanza—his second wife—eat any of the candy, either. There was no way to be sure it wasn’t poisoned. Downstairs, in Peter’s home office, I spotted a box of family photographs. He used to display them, he told me, but now he couldn’t look at Adam, and it seemed strange to put up photos of his older son, Ryan, without Adam’s. “I’m not dealing with it,” he said. Later, he added, “You can’t mourn for the little boy he once was. You can’t fool yourself.”

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What Faces Can’t Tell Us

Gray Matter

By Olimpia Zagnoli for the New York Times

Can you detect someone’s emotional state just by looking at his face?

It sure seems like it. In everyday life, you can often “read” what someone is feeling with the quickest of glances. Hundreds of scientific studies support the idea that the face is a kind of emotional beacon, clearly and universally signaling the full array of human sentiments, from fear and anger to joy and surprise.

Increasingly, companies like Apple and government agencies like the Transportation Security Administration are banking on this transparency, developing software to identify consumers’ moods or training programs to gauge the intent of airline passengers. The same assumption is at work in the field of mental health, where illnesses like autism and schizophrenia are often treated in part by training patients to distinguish emotions by facial expression.

But this assumption is wrong. Several recent and forthcoming research papers from the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, which I direct, suggest that human facial expressions, viewed on their own, are not universally understood.

Read the full article by CLBB Faculty and Northeastern University Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett in the New York Times. Published February 28, 2014.

UC Berkeley psychologists and leading facial expression researchers Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner submitted a response to Feldman Barrett’s research findings on March 11, 2014. Read the letter to the editor here.

Painful Disparities, Painful Realities

By Amanda Pustilnik | University of Maryland Legal Studies Research | 10 March 2014

Abstract:

Legal doctrines and decisional norms treat chronic claims pain differently than other kinds of disability or damages claims because of bias and confusion about whether chronic pain is real. This is law’s painful disparity. Now, breakthrough neuroimaging can make pain visible, shedding light on these mysterious ills. Neuroimaging shows these conditions are, as sufferers have known all along, painfully real. This Article is about where law ought to change because of innovations in structural and functional imaging of the brain in pain. It describes cutting-edge scientific developments and the impact they should make on evidence law and disability law, and, eventually the law’s norms about pain. It suggests that pain neuroimaging will solve current legal problems and also open the door to reconsiderations of law’s treatment of other subjective phenomena like mental states and emotions, going to the theoretical heart of legal doctrines about body and mind.

Read the full paper here.

Application of Neuroscience Research and Techniques to Forensic Psychology

Scott Lilienfeld speaks with, from left, Ekaterina Pivovarova, Lyn Kiehl, Gina Vincent, and Joshua Buckholtz.

Scott Lilienfeld speaks with, from left, Ekaterina Pivovarova, Lyn Kiehl, Gina Vincent, and Joshua Buckholtz.

The science that makes it into the courtroom – whether outdated, cutting-edge, or not ready for prime time – has enormous impact on the lives of individuals every day across the world.  Forensic psychologists, in effect, serve as courtroom gatekeepers for the science of human behavior.  And while much of psychology has turned to the cognitive and behavioral neurosciences – i.e., how the brain generates thought and behavior – to understand behavior, brain-based science has yet to have a significant impact on the field of forensic psychology.  CLBB had an opportunity to explore this important topic with a symposium at the 2014 meeting of the American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS), the leading trade organization for forensic psychologists, which took place in New Orleans, Louisiana from March 6-8, 2014.

Organized and chaired by CLBB Fellow, Ekaterina Pivovarova, Ph.D., the symposium entitled “Application of Neuroscience Research and Techniques to Forensic Psychology” explored the neuroscience of deception, psychopathy, and substance abuse.  In addition to Dr. Pivovarova, panelists included Joshua Buckholtz, PhD., a CLBB faculty member and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard University; Gina Vincent, PhD., Director of Translational Law & Psychiatry Research and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School; and Lyn Kiehl, M.A., J.D., a lawyer with a forensic psychology and behavioral neuroscience background focused on translation of neuroscientific research into effective legal practice and policy. Scott Lilienfeld, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Emory University and co-author of Brainwashed, was the panel discussant.

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Justices Hear Florida Case on Measuring Inmates’ Mental Disabilities

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy raised questions about how much the court deferred to psychiatrists, psychologists and economists.WASHINGTON — A majority of the Supreme Court seemed skeptical on Monday of how Florida decides who is eligible to be spared the death penalty on account of intellectual disabilities. The state uses an I.Q. of 70 as a rigid cutoff, and several justices suggested that it should take account of a standard margin of error or consider additional factors.

Other justices seemed inclined to allow Florida and other states to decide for themselves how to determine who is “mentally retarded” and so ineligible for execution under the court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia.

The Atkins decision gave states substantial discretion and only general guidance. It said a finding of intellectual disability requires proof of three things: “subaverage intellectual functioning,” meaning low I.Q. scores; a lack of fundamental social and practical skills; and the presence of both conditions before age 18. The court said I.Q. scores under “approximately 70” typically indicate intellectual disability.

As Monday’s argument progressed, it became clear that what divided the two groups of justices was more than the particular case. Their disagreement was a larger one about the role of scholarly and professional expertise in the resolution of legal disputes.

Read the full article, Justices Hear Florida Case on Measuring Inmates’ Mental Disabilities, in New York Times. By Adam Liptak, March 3, 2014. See more coverage of this issue in the article, With Death Penalty, How Should States Define Mental Disability?, on NPR. By Nina Totenburg, March 3, 2014.