News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.


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 the Mind Wanders: Distinguishing Stimulus-Dependent from Stimulus-Independent Thoughts During Incidental Encoding in Young and Older Adults

By David Maillet and Daniel L. Schacter | Psychology and Aging | June 2016


In recent years, several studies have indicated that healthy older adults exhibit a reduction in mind-wandering compared with young adults. However, relatively little research has examined the extent to which ongoing thoughts in young and older adults are dependent on environmental stimuli. In the current study, we assessed age-related differences in frequency of stimulus-dependent thoughts (SDTs) and stimulus-independent thoughts (SITs) during a slow-paced incidental encoding task. Based on previous research suggesting that older adults rely on external information to a greater extent than young adults, we hypothesized that ongoing thoughts in older adults may be more stimulus-dependent than in young adults. We found that although older adults reported overall fewer thoughts compared to young adults, they exhibited a reduction in proportion of SITs and an increase in proportion of SDTs. In both age groups, SDTs were more frequently about the past compared with SITs, while SITs were more frequently about the future. Finally, the extent to which both young and older adults reported SDTs, but not SITs, at encoding was positively correlated with how often they reported remembering thoughts at retrieval, and SDT frequency was positively correlated with overall performance on the memory task in older adults. Our results provide evidence that ongoing thoughts in older adults may be more dependent on environmental stimuli than young adults, and that these thoughts may impact performance in recognition tasks.

Read the full article here.

Dr. Schacter to Receive Highest APS Award

CLBB Faculty Member Daniel Schacter has been named to receive the APS 2017 William James Fellow Award. The James Award is the highest honor conferred by APS. It honors distinguished APS Members for a lifetime of significant intellectual contributions to the basic science of psychology. According to the website:

The APS William James Fellow Award honors APS Members for their lifetime of significant intellectual contributions to the basic science of psychology. Recipients must be APS members recognized internationally for their outstanding contributions to scientific psychology. 

Congratulations to Dr. Daniel Schacter on this enormous achievement!

From Mind Wandering to Involuntary Retrieval: Age-Related Differences in Spontaneous Cognitive Processes

By David Maillet and Daniel L. Schacter | Neuropsychologia | November 23, 2015


The majority of studies that have investigated the effects of healthy aging on cognition have focused on age-related differences in voluntary and deliberately engaged cognitive processes. Yet many forms of cognition occur spontaneously, without any deliberate attempt at engaging them. In this article we review studies that have assessed age-related differences in four such types of spontaneous thought processes: mind-wandering, involuntary autobiographical memory, intrusive thoughts, and spontaneous prospective memory retrieval. These studies suggest that older adults exhibit a reduction in frequency of both mind-wandering and involuntary autobiographical memory, whereas findings regarding intrusive thoughts have been more mixed. Additionally, there is some preliminary evidence that spontaneous prospective memory retrieval may be relatively preserved in aging. We consider the roles of age-related differences in cognitive resources, motivation, current concerns and emotional regulation in accounting for these findings. We also consider age-related differences in the neural correlates of spontaneous cognitive processes.

Read the full article here.

Ventromedial prefrontal cortex supports affective future simulation by integrating distributed knowledge

By Roland Beniot, Karl Szpunar, and Daniel Schacter | PNAS | October 2014

Although the future often seems intangible, we can make it more concrete by imagining prospective events. Here, using functional MRI, we demonstrate a mechanism by which the ventromedial prefrontal cortex supports such episodic simulations, and thereby contributes to affective foresight: This region supports processes that (i) integrate knowledge related to the elements that constitute an episode and (ii) represent the episode’s emergent affective quality. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex achieves such integration via interactions with distributed cortical regions that process the individual elements. Its activation then signals the affective quality of the ensuing episode, which goes beyond the combined affective quality of its constituting elements. The integrative process further augments long-term retention of the episode, making it available at later time points. This mechanism thus renders the future tangible, providing a basis for farsighted behavior.

Read the full paper on PNAS.

Scientific Research – and Caution – Are Needed in the Courts: Dispatch from APLS 2013

adapted from “Persistence of Memory” (Dali, 1931)

This year’s Annual Conference of the American Psychology Law Society (Division 41 of the American Psychological Association) was held in Portland, Oregon, a fortuitously appropriate location for the ongoing debate about how to diminish problems associated with eyewitness testimony.

Recently, the Oregon Supreme Court issued an important decision, in State of Oregon v. Lawson (2012), about procedures for managing potentially unreliable eyewitness testimony; the decision was Oregon’s answer to another groundbreaking case, State of New Jersey v. Henderson (2011).

In the Henderson case, which CLBB faculty member Dr. Daniel Schacter, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and a leading researcher on memory, discussed at CLBB’s recent event “Memory in the Courtroom: Fixed, Fallible, or Fleeting?”, the court reviewed extensive scientific research and heard expert testimony from eyewitness researchers about empirically identified problems in memory encoding, memory recall, and factors that can and cannot be controlled by investigators to minimize bias and error (e.g., length of time between the crime and witness interview, visibility at the scene of the crime).

Continue reading »