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

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 »

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 »

Are You in Despair? That’s Good

By Lisa Feldman Barrett | The New York Times | June 3, 2016

WHEN the world gets you down, do you feel just generally “bad”? Or do you have more precise emotional experiences, such as grief or despair or gloom?

In psychology, people with finely tuned feelings are said to exhibit “emotional granularity.When reading about the abuses of the Islamic State, for example, you might experience creeping horror or fury, rather than general awfulness. When learning about climate change, you could feel alarm tinged with sorrow and regret for species facing extinction. Confronted with this year’s presidential campaign, you might feel astonished, exasperated or even embarrassed on behalf of the candidates — an emotion known in Mexico as “pena ajena.”

Emotional granularity isn’t just about having a rich vocabulary; it’s about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely. This can make a difference in your life. In fact, there is growing scientific evidence that precisely tailored emotional experiences are good for you, even if those experiences are negative. Continue reading »

Functional Connectivity Dynamics During Film Viewing Reveal Common Networks for Different Emotional Experiences

By Gal Raz, Alexandra Touroutoglou, Christine Wilson-Mendenhall, Gadi Gilam, Tamar Lin, Tal GonenYael Jacob, Shir Atzil, Roee Admon, Maya Bleich-Cohen, Adi Maron-Katz, Talma Hendler, and Lisa Feldman Barrett | Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience | May 3, 2016

Abstract:

Recent theoretical and empirical work has highlighted the role of domain-general, large-scale brain networks in generating emotional experiences. These networks are hypothesized to process aspects of emotional experiences that are not unique to a specific emotional category (e.g., “sadness,” “happiness”), but rather that generalize across categories. In this article, we examined the dynamic interactions (i.e., changing cohesiveness) between specific domain-general networks across time while participants experienced various instances of sadness, fear, and anger. We used a novel method for probing the network connectivity dynamics between two salience networks and three amygdala-based networks. We hypothesized, and found, that the functional connectivity between these networks covaried with the intensity of different emotional experiences. Stronger connectivity between the dorsal salience network and the medial amygdala network was associated with more intense ratings of emotional experience across six different instances of the three emotion categories examined. Also, stronger connectivity between the dorsal salience network and the ventrolateral amygdala network was associated with more intense ratings of emotional experience across five out of the six different instances. Our findings demonstrate that a variety of emotional experiences are associated with dynamic interactions of domain-general neural systems.

Read the full article here.

What Our Emotions Are (And Aren’t)

By Lisa Feldman Barrett | The New York Times | July 31, 2015

OUR senses appear to show us the world the way it truly is, but they are easily deceived. For example, if you listen to a recorded symphony through stereo speakers that are placed exactly right, the orchestra will sound like it’s inside your head. Obviously that isn’t the case.

But suppose you completely trusted your senses. You might find yourself asking well-meaning but preposterous scientific questions like “Where in the brain is the woodwinds section located?” A more reasonable approach is not to ask a where question but a how question: How does the brain construct this experience of hearing the orchestra in your head?

I have just set the stage to dispel a major misconception about emotions. Most people, including many scientists, believe that emotions are distinct, locatable entities inside us — but they’re not. Searching for emotions in this form is as misguided as looking for cerebral clarinets and oboes.  Continue reading »