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 Curse of Bigness

By Jeffrey Rosen | The Atlantic | June 3, 2016

Louis Brandeis, who was confirmed to the Supreme Court exactly 100 years ago, was America’s greatest critic of bigness since Thomas Jefferson. Denouncing big banks as well as big government as symptoms of what he called a “curse of bigness,” Brandeis was determined to diminish concentrated financial and federal power, which he viewed as a menace to liberty and democracy. He is also the Jeffersonian prophet who has been most consistently vindicated. The “people’s lawyer,” who predicted the stock-market crash of 1929, was a ferocious critic of economic and political consolidation in an earlier age of “too big to fail.” More than any other Supreme Court justice, he shows the importance of translating values of privacy and free speech in an age of technological change.

So why hasn’t Brandeis been invoked more frequently in the U.S. presidential election? Candidates from Sanders and Clinton to Ted Cruz have criticized big banks. Citizens on both sides of the aisle, from Tea Party conservatives to Feel the Bern progressives, have questioned the idea of “too big to fail.” Brandeis would seem to be a natural icon for this moment in American politics, yet politicians today rarely draw on his legacy.

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The Crimes of Children

By Dylan Walsh | The Atlantic | August 10, 2015

Round Rock High School, just north of Austin in the Texas Hill Country, sprawls over 88 acres. It feels like a small liberal-arts college: There is a junior R.O.T.C. Training center. There are basketball courts, a gymnastics facility, a swimming pool, a football field, soccer fields, and a baseball diamond that, along its outfield fence, bears a faded sign commemorating the school’s 1997 state championship victory.

In January 2007, the principal called 17-year-old Jean Karlo Ponzanelli out of first-period history class and down to the office to join a waiting detective who took him to the local station for questioning. A girl he knew had run away from home and the police were curious about her whereabouts. They also suspected domestic abuse. (The girl declined a request for an interview, so her name has been withheld to protect her privacy.)

Ponzanelli had known this girl since the last day of 2005, when he attended a New Year’s Party at her home. “We go to the same high school,” he remembers her telling him in the kitchen.

“You’re in high school?” Ponzanelli asked.

Another partygoer asked her how old she was. “I’m 15,” she said.

After that, Ponzanelli and the girl drifted in the same suburban mix. He never ran into her in the hallways, but he’d often see her hanging out with his friends in the high-school parking lot at the end of the day. On occasion, she would call him and give a location and he would drive over. “Sometimes she had bruises on her face,” Ponzanelli said.

Ponzanelli said he couldn’t help the detective with her whereabouts that day. He hadn’t heard from the girl for some time. In the course of their meandering conversation, though, the Round Rock Police Department gathered another piece of information: Ponzanelli and the girl had had sex three times. On the first two occasions, the officer calculated, Ponzanelli had been 16 and she’d been 13. In Texas, sex with a minor younger than 14 is a first-degree felony. 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.

Why Police Lineups Will Never Be Perfect

By Virginia Hughes | The Atlantic | October 2, 2014

One night in 1984, a man broke into 22-year-old Jennifer Thompson’s apartment, threatened her at knifepoint, and raped her. While it was happening she tried to memorize everything about him—his  face, hair, clothes, body type. Later that day, she recounted those details to a police sketch artist.

Two days later, a detective showed Thompson a photo lineup of six men. She ruled out four of them right away, and stared at the other two pictures for four or five minutes. Finally she chose one. “Yeah. This is the one,” she said, as recounted in the book Picking Cotton. “I think this is the guy.”

“You ‘think’ that’s the guy?” one of the detectives asked her.

“It’s him,” she said.

“You’re sure?” asked another detective.

“Positive.”

She wrote her initials and date on the back of the photo, then asked them, “Did I do OK?”

“You did great, Ms. Thompson.”

The man she identified, Ronald Cotton, was convicted and sentenced to a life in prison. More than 10 years later, a DNA test revealed that Thompson had pointed to the wrong guy. Cotton was innocent.

Eyewitness testimony is hugely influential in criminal cases. And yet, brain research has shown again and again that human memory is unreliable: Every time a memory is recalled it becomes vulnerable to change. Confirming feedback—such as a detective telling a witness she “did great”—seems to distort memories, making them feel more accurate with each recollection. Since the start of the Innocence Project 318 cases have been overturned thanks to DNA testing. Eyewitness mistakes played a part in nearly three-quarters of them.

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Who Has a Right to Pain Relief?

By Rebecca Davis O’Brien | The Atlantic | August 18, 2014

“Pain has become our fifth vital sign.” Speaking last fall at a New Jersey symposium on pain management called “Do No Harm,” the chairman of emergency services at Hackensack University Medical Center said what his audience of doctors and nurses hardly needed to be told. We are all familiar with the medical routine: The thermometer beeps, the blood pressure gauge sighs, breaths and pulse are recorded—and then we’re asked, these days, how much it hurts on a scale of one to 10. Pain didn’t get there on its own. In fact, the speaker was borrowing a line from the American Pain Society, a patient-advocacy group whose research is supported by pharmaceutical companies. “In a certain way,” he confessed, “we have created our own monster.” Continue reading »