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

Social Behavior: A Penny for Your Shocks

By Hayley M. Dorfman and Joshua W. Buckholtz | Current Biology | July 20, 2015

Summary:

Antisocial behavior is an enormously costly social problem, but its origins are poorly understood. A new study shows that prosocial and antisocial behaviors arise from individual differences in how we represent the value of others’ pain relative to our own potential gain, rather than from variability in the capacity for effortful inhibitory control.

Read the full paper here.

Amanda Pustilnik Weighs in on “Corrective Brain Implants” for Criminals

CLBB Faculty and Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience Amanda Pustilnik was sought out for her expert opinion on whether corrective brain implants could make the death penalty obsolete, in response to a recent article. In her words, “The story is speculative and interesting, but it gets a bunch of things wrong.”

Criminals are not neurologically different than the rest of us—they are a product of environment and opportunity…. the average criminal smoked a little weed, or stole a car, or shoplifted, or never had good behavioral modeling at home so they punched someone in the face. Most people don’t need brain implants. They are not them—they are us.

There’s such a sexiness around neuroscience, and I love it, but that sometimes deflects us from easier, cheaper, more effective things we could do more efficiently, both now or in the future.

Read the rest of piece from Popular Science, “Could we give Criminals Corrective Brain Implants?“, by Alexandra Ossola, published July 24, 2015.

Federal Commission Cites Decision by Nancy Gertner in Sexual Orientation Case

CLBB Faculty Member Nancy Gertner‘s decision on a 1999 federal lawsuit was recently cited by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a ruling against the Federal Aviation Administration. The ruling held that an air traffic controller, who is accusing the FAA of discrimination based on his sexual orientation, could pursue a complaint under Title VII, which bars discrimination on the basis of factors including race, color, religion, sex, and origin. The ruling stated, “We conclude that sexual orientation is inherently a ‘sex-based consideration,’ and an allegation of discrimination based on sexual orientation is necessarily an allegation of sex discrimination under Title VII.” This ruling took a decision by Judge Gertner as precedent, where in 2002, she denied Postal Service’s bid to throw out a lawsuit on the grounds that Title VII did not explicitly mention sexual orientation. She wrote:

In fact, stereotypes about homosexuality are directly related to our stereotypes about the proper roles of men and women. The harasser may discriminate against an openly gay co-worker, or a co-worker that he perceives to be gay, whether effeminate or not, because he thinks, ‘real’ men should date women, and not other men.

Read the full piece from The Boston Globe, “Federal Commission Cites Mass. Lawsuit in Sexual Orientation Case“, by Travis Andersen, published July 21, 2015.

WATCH – “Visible Solutions: How Neuroimaging Helps Law Re-envision Pain”

On June 30, 2015, CLBB and the Petrie-Flom Center hosted a public symposium bringing together the leading experts in neuroscience and law to wrestle with the critical question: what can, and should, the law do with what we know about pain and the brain? To answer this, panelists discussed whether brain imaging can be a “pain-o-meter” that tells courts when a person is in pain, if fMRI technologies can help give us a new perspective on intractable chronic pain, and how to understand the intimate relationship between pain and emotion, if there even is such a distinction. Together, experts and audience members explored how the law can use brain science to get smarter about a subject that touches everyone.  Continue reading »

The U.S. Court System is Criminally Unjust

By Ana Swanson | The Washington Post | July 20, 2015

We like to believe that decisions made in U.S. courts are determined by the wisdom of the Constitution, and guided by fair-minded judges and juries of our peers.

Unfortunately, this is often wishful thinking. Unsettling research into the psychology of courtroom decisions has shown that our personal backgrounds, unconscious biases about race, gender and appearance, and even the time of day play a more important role in outcomes than the actual law.

Adam Benforado, a professor of law at Drexel University, describes these unsettling problems with the justice system in the recently published book “Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice.” The book uses psychology and neuroscience to examine and expose the illogical and unfair ways that judges, jurors, attorneys and others in the legal system make decisions about who is sent to prison, and who walks free.

Benforado’s research shows that mistakes in the criminal justice system are more common than we like to think, and that our personal biases play a disturbingly strong role. He also argues that there are clear and easy steps that we could follow to limit these injustices, if we care to take them. Continue reading »