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

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 »

The Neural Representation of Typical and Atypical Experiences of Negative Images: Comparing Fear, Disgust and Morbid Fascination

By Suzanne Oosterwijk, Kristen A. LindquistMorenikeji Adebayo, and Lisa Feldman Barrett | Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience | July 14, 2015


Negative stimuli do not only evoke fear or disgust, but can also evoke a state of “morbid fascination” which is an urge to approach and explore a negative stimulus. In the present neuroimaging study, we applied an innovative method to investigate the neural systems involved in typical and atypical conceptualizations of negative images. Participants received false feedback labeling their mental experience as fear, disgust or morbid fascination. This manipulation was successful; participants judged the false feedback correct for 70% of the trials on average. The neuroimaging results demonstrated differential activity within regions in the ‘neural reference space for discrete emotion’ depending on the type of feedback. We found robust differences in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the lateral orbitofrontal cortex comparing morbid fascination to control feedback. More subtle differences in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the lateral orbitofrontal cortex were also found between morbid fascination feedback and the other emotion feedback conditions. The present study is the first to forward evidence about the neural representation of the experimentally unexplored state of morbid fascination. In line with a constructionist framework, our findings suggest that neural resources associated with the process of conceptualization contribute to the neural representation of this state.

Read the full article here.

Child Maltreatment and Neural Systems Underlying Emotion Regulation

By Katie A. McLaughlin, Matthew Peverill, Andrea L. Gold, Sonia Alves, and Margaret Sheridan | Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry | June 26, 2015



The strong associations between child maltreatment and psychopathology have generated interest in identifying neurodevelopmental processes that are disrupted following maltreatment. Previous research has largely focused on neural response to negative facial emotion. We determined whether child maltreatment was associated with neural responses during passive viewing of negative and positive emotional stimuli and effortful attempts to regulate emotional responses.


42 adolescents aged 13-19 years, half with exposure to physical and/or sexual abuse, participated. Blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response was measured during passive viewing of negative and positive emotional stimuli and attempts to modulate emotional responses using cognitive reappraisal.


Maltreated adolescents exhibited heightened response in multiple nodes of the salience network, including amygdala, putamen, and anterior insula, to negative relative to neutral stimuli. During attempts to decrease responses to negative stimuli relative to passive viewing, maltreatment was associated with greater recruitment of superior frontal gyrus, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, and frontal pole; adolescents with and without maltreatment down-regulated amygdala response to a similar degree. No associations were observed between maltreatment and neural response to positive emotional stimuli during passive viewing or effortful regulation.


Child maltreatment heightens the salience of negative emotional stimuli. Although maltreated adolescents modulate amygdala responses to negative cues to a similar degree as non-maltreated youths, they utilize regions involved in effortful control to a greater degree to do so, potentially because greater effort is required to modulate heightened amygdala responses. These findings are promising, given the centrality of cognitive restructuring in trauma-focused treatments for children.

Read full paper here.

Hard Feelings: Science’s Struggle to Define Emotions

By Julie Beck | The Atlantic | February 24, 2015

When Paul Ekman was a grad student in the 1950s, psychologists were mostly ignoring emotions. Most psychology research at the time was focused on behaviorism—classical conditioning and the like. Silvan Tomkins was the one other person Ekman knew of who was studying emotions, and he’d done a little work on facial expressions that Ekman saw as extremely promising.

“To me it was obvious,” Ekman says. “There’s gold in those hills; I have to find a way to mine it.”

For his first cross-cultural studies in the 1960s, he traveled around the U.S., Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. In each location, he showed people photos of different facial expressions and asked them to match the images with six different emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust. “There was very high agreement,” Ekman says. People tended to match smiling faces with “happiness,” furrow-browed, tight-lipped faces with “anger,” and so on.

But these responses could have been influenced by culture. The best way to test whether emotions were truly universal, he thought, would be to repeat his experiment in a totally remote society that hadn’t been exposed to Western media. So he planned a trip to Papua New Guinea, his confidence bolstered by films he’d seen of the island’s isolated cultures: “I never saw an expression I wasn’t familiar with in our culture,” he says.

Once there, he showed locals the same photos he’d shown his other research subjects. He gave them a choice between three photos and asked them to pick images that matched various stories (such as “this man’s child has just died”). Adult participants chose the expected emotion between 28 and 100 percent of the time, depending which photos they were choosing among. (The 28 percent was a bit of an outlier: That was when people had to choose between fear, surprise, and sadness. The next lowest rate was 48 percent.)

And so the six emotions used in Ekman’s studies came to be known as the “basic emotions” all humans recognize and experience. Some researchers now say there are fewer than six basic emotions, and some say there are more (Ekman himself has now scaled up to 21), but the idea remains the same: Emotions are biologically innate, universal to all humans, and displayed through facial expressions. Ekman, now a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, with his own company called The Paul Ekman Group, was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2009, thanks to this work.

But despite the theory’s prominence, there are scientists who disagree, and the debate over the nature of emotion has been reinvigorated in recent years. While it would be easy to paint the argument as two-sided—pro-universality versus anti-universality, or Ekman’s cronies versus his critics—I found that everyone I spoke to for this article thinks about emotion a little differently.

Read the full article here, featuring CLBB Faculty Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on emotion.

Intrinsic connectivity in the human brain does not reveal networks for “basic” emotions

Alexandra Touroutoglou, Kristen A. Lindquist, Bradford C. Dickerson and Lisa Feldman Barrett | Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience | February 12, 2015


We tested two competing models for the brain basis of emotion, the basic emotion theory and the conceptual act theory of emotion, using resting-state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fcMRI). The basic emotion view hypothesizes that anger, sadness, fear, disgust and happiness each arise from a brain network that is innate, anatomically constrained, and homologous in other animals. The conceptual act theory of emotion hypothesizes that an instance of emotion is a brain state constructed from the interaction of domain-general, core systems within the brain such as the salience, default mode, and frontoparietal control networks. Using peak coordinates derived from a meta-analysis of task-related emotion fMRI studies, we generated a set of whole-brain rs-fcMRI “discovery” maps for each emotion category, and examined the spatial overlap in their conjunctions. Instead of discovering a specific network for each emotion category, variance in the discovery maps was accounted for by the known domain-general network. Furthermore, the salience network observed as part of every emotion category. These results indicate that specific networks for each emotion do not exist within the intrinsic architecture of the human brain, and instead support the conceptual act theory of emotion.

Read the full paper here.