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

When Is Speech Violence?

By Lisa Feldman Barrett | The New York Times | July 14, 2017

Imagine that a bully threatens to punch you in the face. A week later, he walks up to you and breaks your nose with his fist. Which is more harmful: the punch or the threat?

The answer might seem obvious: Physical violence is physically damaging; verbal statements aren’t. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

But scientifically speaking, it’s not that simple. Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sickalter your brain — even kill neurons — and shorten your life. Continue reading »

The Law’s Emotion Problem

Part of the ongoing coverage of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s new book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

By Lisa Feldman Barrett | The New York Times | March 11, 2017

In the 1992 Supreme Court case Riggins v. Nevada, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy acknowledged — perhaps unwittingly — that our legal system relies on a particular theory of the emotions. The court had ruled that a criminal defendant could not forcibly be medicated to stand trial, and Justice Kennedy concurred, stressing that medication might impair a defendant’s ability to exhibit his feelings. This, he warned, would interfere with the critical task, during the sentencing phase, of trying to “know the heart and mind of the offender,” including “his contrition or its absence.”

But can a judge or jurors infer a defendant’s emotions reliably, as Justice Kennedy implied? Is it possible, as this theory holds, to detect remorse — or any other emotion — just by looking and listening? Continue reading »

How to Become a ‘Superager’

By Lisa Feldman Barrett | The New York Times | December 31, 2016

Think about the people in your life who are 65 or older. Some of them are experiencing the usual mental difficulties of old age, like forgetfulness or a dwindling attention span. Yet others somehow manage to remain mentally sharp. My father-in-law, a retired doctor, is 83 and he still edits books and runs several medical websites.

Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline? “Superagers” (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn’t merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds. My colleagues and I at Massachusetts General Hospital recently studied superagers to understand what made them tick. Continue reading »

You’re an Adult. Your Brain, Not So Much.

CLBB Faculty Member Leah Somerville and her work on adolescent development are featured in the following article, which highlights the difficulty in determining a distinct line between adolescence and adulthood. Additional coverage about how her work intersects with the CLBB can be found here.

By Carl Zimmer | The New York Times | December 21, 2016

Leah H. Somerville, a Harvard neuroscientist, sometimes finds herself in front of an audience of judges. They come to hear her speak about how the brain develops.

It’s a subject on which many legal questions depend. How old does someone have to be to be sentenced to death? When should someone get to vote? Can an 18-year-old give informed consent?

Scientists like Dr. Somerville have learned a great deal in recent years. But the complex picture that’s emerging lacks the bright lines that policy makers would like. Continue reading »

The Varieties of Anger

By Lisa Feldman Barrett | The New York Times | November 12, 2016

Bitterness. Hostility. Rage. The varieties of anger are endless. Some are mild, such as grumpiness, and others are powerful, such as wrath. Different angers vary not only in their intensity but also in their purpose. It’s normal to feel exasperated with your screaming infant and scornful of a political opponent, but scorn toward your baby would be bizarre.

Anger is a large, diverse population of experiences and behaviors, as psychologists like myself who study emotion repeatedly discover. You can shout in anger, weep in anger, even smile in anger. You can throw a tantrum in anger with your heart pounding, or calmly plot your revenge. No single state of the face, body or brain defines anger. Variation is the norm. Continue reading »