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

A Revised Portrait of Psychopaths

The Harvard Gazette covers a recent study by CLBB Faculty Member Dr. Joshua Buckholtz that challenges the traditional view of psychopaths. The study found that psychopaths struggle to make accurate predictions about the consequences of their actions, challenging the previously-held notion that they simply are unable to feel empathy, remorse, or regret. About the significance of the findings, Dr. Buckholtz notes:

“There are two components to regret. There is retrospective regret, which is how we usually think about regret — the emotional experience after you learn you could have received a better outcome if you had made a different choice. But we also use signals from our environment to make predictions about which actions will or won’t result in regret. What differentiated psychopaths from other people was their inability to use those prospective regret signals, to use information about the choices they were given to anticipate how much regret they were going to experience, and adjust their decision-making accordingly.

“It’s almost like a blindness to future regret. When something happens, they feel regret, but what they can’t do is look forward and use information that would tell them they’re going to feel regret to guide their decision-making.”

On the relationship between the study’s novel findings about psychopathy and criminal behavior, he observes:

“Contrary to what you would expect based on these basic emotional-deficit models, their emotional responses to regret didn’t predict incarceration. We know psychopathy is one of the biggest predictors of criminal behavior, but what we found was that behavioral regret sensitivity moderated that, raising the suggestion that intact behavioral regret sensitivity could be a protective factor against incarceration in psychopathic individuals.

Finally, when commenting on the importance of the research, he notes:

“We actually know very little about how psychopaths make choices. There have been all sorts of research into their emotions and emotional experience, but we know next to nothing about how they integrate information that we extract from the world as a matter of course and use it to make decisions in daily lives. Getting better insight into why psychopaths make such terrible choices, I think, is going to be very important for the next generation of psychopathy research.”

Read the full article, “A Revised Portrait of Psychopaths”, published in the Harvard Gazette on February 2, 2017.

Pinpointing Punishment

CLBB Faculty Member Josh Buckholtz is the lead author of a new, pioneering study revealing insights into how humans make decisions about punishment and process blameworthiness. This study has important implications for the field of law and neuroscience, and was made possible in part by support from the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior. Below is an article describing the findings.  Continue reading »

The Neuroscience of Adolescent Decision-Making

By Catherine A. Hartley and Leah H. Somerville | Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences | October 3, 2015

Abstract:

Adolescence is a phase of lifespan associated with greater independence, and thus greater demands to make self-guided decisions in the face of risks, uncertainty, and varying proximal and distal outcomes. A new wave of developmental research takes a neuroeconomic approach to specify what decision processes are changing during adolescence, along what trajectory they are changing, and what neurodevelopmental processes support these changes. Evidence is mounting to suggest that multiple decision processes are tuned differently in adolescents and adults including reward reactivity, uncertainty-tolerance, delay discounting, and experiential assessments of value and risk. Unique interactions between prefrontal cortical, striatal, and salience processing systems during adolescence both constrain and amplify various component processes of mature decision-making.

Read the full article here.

Habitual Control of Goal Selection in Humans

By Fiery Cushman and Adam Morris | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences | September 10, 2015

Abstract: 

Humans choose actions based on both habit and planning. Habitual control is computationally frugal but adapts slowly to novel circumstances, whereas planning is computationally expensive but can adapt swiftly. Current research emphasizes the competition between habits and plans for behavioral control, yet many complex tasks instead favor their integration. We consider a hierarchical architecture that exploits the computational efficiency of habitual control to select goals while preserving the flexibility of planning to achieve those goals. We formalize this mechanism in a reinforcement learning setting, illustrate its costs and benefits, and experimentally demonstrate its spontaneous application in a sequential decision-making task.

Read the full article here.

From Blame to Punishment: Disrupting Prefrontal Cortex Activity Reveals Norm Enforcement Mechanisms

By Joshua W. Buckholtz, Justin W. Martin, Michael T. Treadway, Katherine Jan, David H. Zald, Owen Jones, and René Marois | Neuron | September 16, 2015

Summary:

The social welfare provided by cooperation depends on the enforcement of social norms. Determining blameworthiness and assigning a deserved punishment are two cognitive cornerstones of norm enforcement. Although prior work has implicated the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) in norm-based judgments, the relative contribution of this region to blameworthiness and punishment decisions remains poorly understood. Here, we used repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and fMRI to determine the specific role of DLPFC function in norm-enforcement behavior. DLPFC rTMS reduced punishment for wrongful acts without affecting blameworthiness ratings, and fMRI revealed punishment-selective DLPFC recruitment, suggesting that these two facets of norm-based decision making are neurobiologically dissociable. Finally, we show that DLPFC rTMS affects punishment decision making by altering the integration of information about culpability and harm. Together, these findings reveal a selective, causal role for DLPFC in norm enforcement: representational integration of the distinct information streams used to make punishment decisions.

Read the full paper here.