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

A Sore Thing

Editorial | Nature | 25 February 2015

This editorial comes to publication at the same time as the Nature news piece “Neuroscience in Court: The Painful Truth.” The piece featured Amanda Pustilnik, the 2014-2015 Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience at CLBB and The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, the CLBB Pain & Suffering Working Group, and their recent Symposium.

Injuries and illness evoke sympathy, so why do we find it so hard to appreciate another’s pain? Why, as William Shakespeare observed, when we encounter: “A wretched soul, bruised with adversity” do “We bid be quiet when we hear it cry”? One answer is that there is no objective way to measure pain. This is especially true for the enduring nature of chronic pain, when the original physical injury — if there was one — is long gone. Continue reading »

Neuroscience in Court: The Painful Truth

By Sara Reardon | Nature | 25 February 2015

This article features Amanda Pustilnik, the 2014-2015 Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience at CLBB and The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. Pustilnik’s involvement in the CLBB Pain & Suffering Working Group and their recent Symposium is cited. Nature also published an editorial on pain imaging in the same issue.

Annie is lying down when she answers the phone; she is trying to recover from a rare trip out of the house. Moving around for an extended period leaves the 56-year-old exhausted and with excruciating pain shooting up her back to her shoulders. “It’s really awful,” she says. “You never get comfortable.”

In 2011, Annie, whose name has been changed at the request of her lawyer, slipped and fell on a wet floor in a restaurant, injuring her back and head. The pain has never eased, and forced her to leave her job in retail.

Annie sued the restaurant, which has denied liability, for several hundred thousand dollars to cover medical bills and lost income. To bolster her case that she is in pain and not just malingering, Annie’s lawyer suggested that she enlist the services of Millennium Magnetic Technologies (MMT), a Connecticut-based neuroimaging company that has a centre in Birmingham, Alabama, where Annie lives. MMT says that it can detect pain’s signature using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures and maps blood flow in the brain as a proxy for neural activity. Continue reading »

A Search Warrant For Your Brain?

By Carrie Peyton Dahlberg | Inside Science | 24 February 2015

Brain imaging can already pull bits of information from the minds of willing volunteers in laboratories. What happens when police or lawyers want to use it to pry a key fact from the mind of an unwilling person?

Will your brain be protected under the Fourth Amendment from unreasonable search and seizure?

Or will your brain have a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination? Continue reading »

Neuroscience is coming to the law. Can we keep politics out of it?

By Francis Shen and Dena Gromet | The Washington Post | 25 February 2015

Neuroscience is appearing everywhere. And the legal system is taking notice. The past few years have seen the emergence of “neurolaw.” A spread in the NYT Magazine, a best-selling NYT book, a primetime PBS documentary, the first Law and Neuroscience casebook, and a multimillion-dollar investment from the MacArthur Foundation to fund a Research Network on Law and Neuroscience have all fueled interest in how neuroscience might revolutionize the law. Continue reading »

Hard Feelings: Science’s Struggle to Define Emotions

By Julie Beck | The Atlantic | February 24, 2015

When Paul Ekman was a grad student in the 1950s, psychologists were mostly ignoring emotions. Most psychology research at the time was focused on behaviorism—classical conditioning and the like. Silvan Tomkins was the one other person Ekman knew of who was studying emotions, and he’d done a little work on facial expressions that Ekman saw as extremely promising.

“To me it was obvious,” Ekman says. “There’s gold in those hills; I have to find a way to mine it.”

For his first cross-cultural studies in the 1960s, he traveled around the U.S., Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. In each location, he showed people photos of different facial expressions and asked them to match the images with six different emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust. “There was very high agreement,” Ekman says. People tended to match smiling faces with “happiness,” furrow-browed, tight-lipped faces with “anger,” and so on.

But these responses could have been influenced by culture. The best way to test whether emotions were truly universal, he thought, would be to repeat his experiment in a totally remote society that hadn’t been exposed to Western media. So he planned a trip to Papua New Guinea, his confidence bolstered by films he’d seen of the island’s isolated cultures: “I never saw an expression I wasn’t familiar with in our culture,” he says.

Once there, he showed locals the same photos he’d shown his other research subjects. He gave them a choice between three photos and asked them to pick images that matched various stories (such as “this man’s child has just died”). Adult participants chose the expected emotion between 28 and 100 percent of the time, depending which photos they were choosing among. (The 28 percent was a bit of an outlier: That was when people had to choose between fear, surprise, and sadness. The next lowest rate was 48 percent.)

And so the six emotions used in Ekman’s studies came to be known as the “basic emotions” all humans recognize and experience. Some researchers now say there are fewer than six basic emotions, and some say there are more (Ekman himself has now scaled up to 21), but the idea remains the same: Emotions are biologically innate, universal to all humans, and displayed through facial expressions. Ekman, now a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, with his own company called The Paul Ekman Group, was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2009, thanks to this work.

But despite the theory’s prominence, there are scientists who disagree, and the debate over the nature of emotion has been reinvigorated in recent years. While it would be easy to paint the argument as two-sided—pro-universality versus anti-universality, or Ekman’s cronies versus his critics—I found that everyone I spoke to for this article thinks about emotion a little differently.

Read the full article here, featuring CLBB Faculty Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on emotion.