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 a Gun Is Not a Gun

By Lisa Feldman Barrett and Jolie Wormwood | The New York Times Sunday Review | April 17, 2015

The Justice Department recently analyzed eight years of shootings by Philadelphia police officers. Its report contained two sobering statistics: Fifteen percent of those shot were unarmed; and in half of these cases, an officer reportedly misidentified a “nonthreatening object (e.g., a cellphone) or movement (e.g., tugging at the waistband)” as a weapon.

Many factors presumably contribute to such shootings, ranging from carelessness to unconscious bias to explicit racism, all of which have received considerable attention of late, and deservedly so.

But there is a lesser-known psychological phenomenon that might also explain some of these shootings. It’s called “affective realism”: the tendency of your feelings to influence what you see — not what you think you see, but the actual content of your perceptual experience. Continue reading »

WATCH – “Does Brain-Based Lie Detection Belong in American Courtrooms?”

Click to view event poster.

Click to view event poster.

As neuroimaging and other technologies advance, will traditionally-excluded tests of veracity (or lack thereof) find a place in American courtrooms? What is the state of our neuroscience and understanding of brain-based lie detection techniques?

Are these advances ready for “prime time,” or should we proceed with caution? What are the implications of existing research for the legal system and our moral assumptions about lying?

On Tuesday, April 14, leaders in neuroethics, forensic psychology, and neurolaw discussed the state of the science and the implications of neuroscientific advances for ethics and law. Can neuroscientific methods accurately distinguish truth-telling from ling? Are there limitations in our science? If so, can these limitations be addressed sufficiently to meet rules of evidence? If not, will these tests have any role in the courtroom? What are the legal and ethical implications of including or excluding neuroscientific evidence of lying?

This seminar took place from 4:30-6:00pm on Tuesday, April 14 at Harvard Medical School.

Panelists:

giordano 150x150James Giordano, PhD is Chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics and is Co-direector of the O’Neill-Pellegrino Program in Brain Science and Global Health Law and policy. He is also a professor in the Department of Neurology at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC.

 

pivovarova_150x1501-150x134Ekaterina (Kate) Pivovarova, PhD is a Researcher and Assistant Professor in the Law and Psychiatry Division at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Department of Psychiatry. She is also a licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice. Dr. Pivovarova was the 2013-2014 CLBB Forensic Psychology Research Fellow.

 

shen 150x150Francis X. Shen, PhD, JD is a McKnight Landgrant Professor and Associate Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota, where he directs the Shen Neurolaw Lab. He also serves as Executive Director of Education and Outreach for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, and is currently a visiting scholar at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

 

This event, hosted by the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics, was co-sponsored by CLBB, The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, HLS; Institute for the Neurosciences, BWH; the Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, Harvard University; Center for Brain Science, Harvard University; and the Department of Neurobiology, HMS. Funding is provided by the Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, Harvard University and The Harvard Brain Initiative Collaborative Seed Grant Program. 

Watch video of the entire “Brain-Based Lie Detection” event below, or explore past events on pain, memory, free will, and criminal responsibility, on CLBB’s Vimeo channel.

Nearly 1 in 10 Americans have severe anger issues and access to guns

By Christopher Ingraham | The Washington Post | April 8, 2015

Roughly 22 million Americans — 8.9 percent of the adult population– have impulsive anger issues and easy access to guns. 3.7 million of these angry gun owners routinely carry their guns in public. And very few of them are subject to current mental health-based gun ownership restrictions.

Those are the key findings of a new study by researchers from Harvard, Columbia and Duke University. “Anger,” in this study, doesn’t simply mean garden-variety aggravation. It means explosive, uncontrollable rage, as measured by responses to the National Comorbidity Survey Replication in the early 2000s. It is “impulsive, out of control, destructive, harmful,” lead author Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University said in an interview. “You and I might shout. These individuals break and smash things and get into physical fights, punch someone in the nose.” Continue reading »

When Eyewitness Testimony Goes Horribly Wrong

By Charlotte Silver | Vice | April 1, 2015

In June 1998, an Orange County, California, bank was robbed. Three men made off with a little over a thousand dollars in cash.

At the time, Guy Miles, a 31-year-old black man from nearby Carson, was in violation of parole. Released from a California prison the year before—after spending two years there for stealing cars from a valet service—he was not permitted to leave the state. Miles wanted to break away from the life of gangs, crime, and prison that he had been locked into since dropping out of high school, according to his family.

So he left for Las Vegas, moved in with his new girlfriend, and kept himself afloat by shuttling between small jobs. Miles concealed his whereabouts from his parole officer by telling him he was staying with his parents in Carson, and every so often he would make a dash through the desert to show up for meetings.

In September 1998, Miles’s parole officer asked him to come in for an impromptu meeting. Waiting for him at the office was a police officer with a warrant for his arrest. Two witnesses who’d been working at the Orange County bank at the time of the robbery had fingered Miles. At trial, his Vegas alibi didn’t hold up against prosecutors’ eyewitness testimonies and Miles and another man, Bernard Teamer, were found guilty. (Teamer had allegedly manned the getaway car.) Continue reading »

A New Way to Reform the Judicial System

By Douglas Starr | The New Yorker | March 31, 2015

Last year, the district attorney’s office in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, blew a case. The chairman of the county’s Republican Party, Robert J. Kerns, had been accused of rape by a woman who worked at his law firm. The woman said that Kerns had offered her a ride after an alcohol-fuelled office party. Along the way, she said, he gave her wine and raped her in his Mercedes, and then again in her home. Hospital reports showed bruising consistent with a sexual assault, and DNA on the woman’s underwear was consistent with Kerns’s profile. A key piece of evidence was a urine test apparently showing the presence of Zolpidem, commonly known as Ambien. Prosecutors secured a grand-jury indictment on more than a dozen criminal counts, including rape and aggravated indecent assault. Afterward, they held a press conference.

Several months later, a toxicologist hired by Kerns’s defense took a closer look at the lab report. Although the word “Zolpidem” appeared, what the document indicated was that the test had detected “less than” five nanograms per milliliter, which in this case was zero. Kerns’s lawyer got in touch with the prosecuting attorneys, who were horrified to realize that they had misinterpreted the findings—a rookie mistake.

“It was a huge embarrassment,” Risa Ferman, Montgomery County’s district attorney, told me. She and her staff had plenty of evidence that Kerns had committed a sexual assault, but, because the drugging was written into the indictment, they had to drop charges and refer the case to the Commonwealth’s Attorney General’s office. A newspaper called the incident a “fiasco.” Continue reading »