On Thursday, November 20, 2014, at the Bornstein Amphitheater at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, CLBB and the Boston Society for Neurology and Psychiatry co-sponsored a talk by Steven Pinker, renowned Harvard cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular author, to discuss his most recent book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Video of the event is included below in its entirety and at our Vimeo page. Continue reading »
While we may believe that we choose and direct our movements consciously, the physiology of human motor control provides compelling evidence that this sense of conscious decision – free will – is a perception only.
On Thursday, October 2, 2014, at the Bornstein Amphitheater at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, CLBB and the Boston Society for Neurology and Psychiatry co-sponsored an event exploring how an understanding of human motor control can contribute to the question of free will. Video of the event is included below in its entirety and at our Vimeo page. Continue reading »
On September 12-14, 2014, the Atlanta Neuroethics Consortium was held at Georgia State University. The topic, Neuro-Interventions and the Law: Regulating Human Mental Capacity, brought together leading scholars on philosophy, neuroscience, law, cognitive and clinical psychology, psychiatry, and bioethics. The participants included Judge Andre Davis, Nita Farahany, Stephen Morse, Francis Shen, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, Nicole Vincent, and Paul Root Wolpe. The conference panels, talks, and keynotes addressed pressing issues about managing and appropriately utilizing novel neuroscientific technologies as they relate to legal issues. Continue reading »
CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis X. Shen and research assistant Aldis H. Petriceks discusses the role neuroscience can play in the outcomes of migrants seeking asylum at the border.
Francis X. Shen and Aldis H. Petriceks | Petrie-Flom Center | December 10th, 2019
Today hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers await their hearings. Multiple studies conducted in 2019 confirmed that the conditions of detainment are often deplorable. The federal government recently acknowledged a lack of adequate medical and mental health care at the Southern Border, and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission issued a 200-page report documenting the Human Cost of Inhumane Immigration Policies, highlighting the severe damage to child and adult mental health at the border. All the while, despite public outrage and government claims to the contrary, family separation has remained prevalent.
Recent investigations into border detention facilities have revealed children sleeping in “cold cells without proper clothing or adequate food;” verbal abuse and emotional neglect; cells overcrowded with sick and unwashed children; and the constant, amplifying anxiety of children in fear of losing their parents. Beyond the border, in detention centers across the country, facilities are similarly deplorable.
According to recent studies, separately-detained immigrant children often suffer from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-harm, and suicidal ideation. When these children are released, they are vulnerable to long-term separation anxiety, sleep disturbance, nightmares, and decreased academic capacity.
Common sense and compassion both suggest that these consequences are troubling and unethical. But legal advocates have found common sense and compassion in short supply.
Against this background, the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (CLBB) is asking a novel and important question: can neuroscientific evidence play a role in improving the conditions of confinement—and the courtroom outcomes—of asylum seekers?
The Center for Law, Brain and Behavior works at the vanguard of applied neuroscience: making neuroscience actionable for the legal community in order to ensure just and positive outcomes for all those affected by the law. We believe that better decisions, aligned with science, will produce better outcomes, aligned with justice.
We promote and enable the sound application of accurate neuroscience to critical areas of the legal process: criminal trials and sentencing, juvenile justice, elder protection, and immigration enforcement and asylum.
Our work in immigration justice began in 2019. As part of the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, a collaboration between the CLBB and Petrie-Flom Center, we held a kickoff event—Trauma at the Border—featuring Dr. Charles Nelson, III, Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and Attorney Cindy Zapata, Clinical Instructor in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program at Harvard Law School, together in dialogue surrounding the integration of science and law. Since then, we have been speaking with legal practitioners and scientists about whether—and how—neuroscience could play a larger role in promoting justice in immigration law.
Here’s what we’ve learned:
First, we are confident neuroscience offers valuable insight into the neurological harms inflicted on asylum seekers, especially children. The harms are extensive, with studies consistently demonstrating changes in brain structure, function, and connectivity resulting from childhood trauma. As just one example, childhood maltreatment—including physical, verbal, and non-verbal abuse and neglect—is associated with substantial reductions in grey matter in the hippocampus, a region of the brain tightly involved in memory and emotional regulation, and particularly susceptible to stress-related hormones.
Concurrent with these structural changes are shifts in specific neurological functions. Combined with the structural changes, these functional alterations may help explain why maltreated children—like those separately detained at the border—are more likely to suffer from PTSD, major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, personality disorders, and psychosis.
Second, the neuroscience of memory has important potential to help courts better understand that inconsistencies in narrative recall are not necessarily indicative of a lack of credibility in asylum seekers. Cognitive neuroscientists are beginning to uncover the underlying neurobiology of autobiographical recall among people with emotional disorders, showing how trauma can affect memory circuits.
Yet testimonial inconsistencies still play a very large role in negative credibility findings. This gap—between the neuroscientific and courtroom understandings of memory—is one more arena where the integration of neuroscience and law can provide fresh direction toward more just legal outcomes. Neuroscience may be powerful evidence if it allows judges and asylum officers to see individual trauma through a new, brain-based lens.
This is not an unfounded hope. In a series of landmark 8th Amendment cases restricting the use of the death penalty and life without parole for juvenile offenders, the United States Supreme Court cited that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.” (Roper, Graham, Miller). After ten years of careful interdisciplinary collaboration between neuroscientists and lawyers, today juvenile justice litigators routinely cite neuroscientific findings in their briefs and arguments.
Our work in 2020 will further explore how attorneys representing asylum seekers may similarly find successful ways to integrate brain science into their work.
October 23, 2019 12:00 PM at Harvard Law School
The future of neuroscience and law will be a computational future, as both fields are increasingly integrating artificial intelligence and machine learning. But what will this future look like? In this lunchtime event in October 2019, leading experts in artificial intelligence, computational psychiatry, and the law discussed these questions as they explored how AI and digital technologies can advance social good through improved social, psychiatric, and legal interventions.
- Rediet Abebe, Junior Fellow, Harvard Society of Fellows and PhD candidate, Cornell University
- Dr. Justin T. Baker, Scientific Director, Institute for Technology in Psychiatry; Director of Functional Neuroimaging and Bioinformatics, Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder Research Program, McLean Hospital; co-director, Massachusetts General Hospital/McLean Hospital Research Concentration Program; Associate Director, Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, MGH; and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
- Francis X. Shen, Executive Director, Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, MGH; an Instructor in Psychology, Harvard Medical School; and an Associate Professor of Law, McKnight Presidential Fellow, and faculty member in the Graduate Program on Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota.
Part of the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, a collaboration between the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.
On August 8th, 2019, the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior hosted a webinar offering information and resources to students interested in careers involving the intersection of law and neuroscience. The webinar was led by Exec. Dir. Dr. Francis X. Shen. You can watch the video here for free, but you have to register.
CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis X. Shen discusses the role neuroscience can play in the outcomes of migrants seeking asylum at the border.
Francis X. Shen | Petrie-Flom Center | February 8th, 2019
This week the House Judiciary Committee begins its formal inquiries into the Trump Administration’s separation of children from their families as part of a “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018.
The policy of family separation was curtailed after public outcry, but the trauma remains. Experts in developmental neuroscience have explained that the trauma of separation has likely produced long-term toxic effects on the brains of these young people.
Moreover, the trauma of separation is only one of many stressors affecting the lives of those seeking refuge and asylum. Children who witness intense violence and flee war-ravaged lands are at greater risk of psychological harm. Children at the U.S. border encounter even more trauma when they enter an immigration system where the Supreme Court has recently held that they can be detained indefinitely.
Legal advocates across the world, including law clinics like the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, are using the law to address these challenging circumstances.
In a timely panel on Monday, March 4, “Trauma at the Border,” we will explore whether and how neuroscience has a role to play in legal advocacy. Can neuroscience help frame the policy debate? In individual cases, can brain evidence be used to improve client outcomes? How can advocates most effectively and sensitively work with clients who are experiencing such significant ongoing trauma?
Addressing these and related questions will be Harvard professor Dr. Charles Nelson, III, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School and Director of Research, Developmental Medicine Center, Boston Children’s Hospital; Cindy Zapata, JD, Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor, Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, Harvard Law School; and me, Francis X. Shen, PhD, JD, Executive Director, Harvard Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, Massachusetts General Hospital and Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience, Petrie-Flom Center in Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, Harvard Law School.
The presentations and discussions will be both scientifically rich and passionately personal. Dr. Nelson’s research on the effects of trauma on the young child’s brain has been featured in conversations about immigration policy, and Attorney Zapata led Harvard Law School students on service trip to Karnes Detention Center, where they worked with children and fathers who had been forcibly separated under the Trump administration policy.
As Executive Director of the MGH Center for Law Brain and Behavior (CLBB), which partners with the Petrie-Flom Center to produce the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, I am excited because this event reflects the CLBB’s mission to bring about systemic legal reform through innovative uses of neuroscience.
We believe that better decisions aligned with science will produce better outcomes, aligned with justice.
Neuroscientists have been vocal about the toxic effects of trauma on the young brain, and legal advocates have been vigorous in their efforts to pursue justice for immigrant families. Integrating neuroscience in a responsible and strategic manner has the potential to improve legal doctrine and practice. But to realize that potential, we need more direct dialogue between neuroscience and law. This panel offers both scientists and lawyers an opportunity to kick-start that dialogue.
I hope our upcoming events marks the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership, and I hope you will join us.
Both directors of the CLBB, Judith G. Edersheim, JD, MD, and Bruce H. Price, MD, spoke at an annual Harvard Medical School course on dementia this past month. The course, named “Dementia: A Comprehensive Update,” provided four full days of instruction for medical professionals on the changing understanding of dementia in a variety of medical fields. Dr. Edersheim and Dr. Price spoke about the implications of dementia on the legal world, particularly in relation to the concepts of cognitive capacity and undue influence.