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

Free Will and Punishment: A Mechanistic View of Human Nature Reduces Retribution

By Azim F. Shariff, Joshua D. Greene, Johan C. Karremans, Jamie B. Luguri, Cory J. Clark, Jonathan W. Schooler, Roy F. Baumeister & Kathleen D. Vohs | Psychological Science | August 2014

Abstract:

If free-will beliefs support attributions of moral responsibility, then reducing these beliefs should make people less retributive in their attitudes about punishment. Four studies tested this prediction using both measured and manipulated free-will beliefs. Study 1 found that people with weaker free-will beliefs endorsed less retributive, but not consequentialist, attitudes regarding punishment of criminals. Subsequent studies showed that learning about the neural bases of human behavior, through either lab-based manipulations or attendance at an undergraduate neuroscience course, reduced people’s support for retributive punishment (Studies 2–4). These results illustrate that exposure to debates about free will and to scientific research on the neural basis of behavior may have consequences for attributions of moral responsibility.

Read the full paper here.

Free Will: Is Your Brain the Boss of You?

Scientific American Blogs | June 30, 2014 | Mark Fischetti

Philosophers have debated for years whether we deliberately make each of the many decisions we make every day, or if our brain does it for us, on autopilot. Neuroscientists have shown, for example, that neurons in the brain initiate our response to various stimuli milliseconds before we’re even aware that we’re taking such an action.

This heady debate has hit a very practical road in the past decade: whether individuals who commit crimes are actually responsible for them. Lawyers have argued in court that if the brain determines the mind, then defendants may not be responsible for their transgressions.

Michael Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is at the forefront of the research into free will, and its implications in courtroom trials and in the expectations of different societies. His thoughts and proclamations are captured in an engaging video called Free Will, created by Joseph LeDoux, a well-known expert on the emotional brain at New York University. The video is the second in a series he is putting together with director Alexis Gambis called My Mind’s Eye. (The first episode featured Ned Block on the mind-body problem.)

Read the rest of the article and view the video on Scientific American Blogs, or read more about Michael Gazzaniga here.

Watch: “Brainwashed? What Neuroscience Can – and Can’t – Tell Us About Ourselves”

Brainwashed? What Neuroscience Can – and Can't – Tell Us About Ourselves While brain science has helped to characterize many aspects of the human experience, there is no consensus about whether it could also be used to help address some of society’s “big” problems.

On Thursday, April 17, 2014, CLBB hosted a conversation at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center of Harvard Medical School, with experts in psychology, philosophy and neuroscience to debate whether neuroscience has anything useful to add to our understanding of thorny ethical and legal questions, such as whether addiction should be considered a “brain disease,” the nature of free will, and how societies should determine personal responsibility.  Video of the event is included below in its entirety and at our Vimeo page.

A recurring theme of the evening’s discussion was how to determine which level of analysis – from molecules and genes to brain structures and systems to individuals and social systems – is the most important to consider for understanding the mind.  While all panelists agreed that any discussion of the brain’s contribution to behavior should be embedded within a multi-level approach, there was considerable disagreement around whether the brain’s contribution should be considered privileged or not. Continue reading »

Did Your Brain Make You Do It?

By John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz | The New York Times | July 27, 2012

Are you responsible for your behavior if your brain “made you do it”?

Often we think not. For example, research now suggests that the brain’s frontal lobes, which are crucial for self-control, are not yet mature in adolescents. This finding has helped shape attitudes about whether young people are fully responsible for their actions. In 2005, when the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for juveniles was unconstitutional, its decision explicitly took into consideration that “parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through late adolescence.”

Similar reasoning is often applied to behavior arising from chemical imbalances in the brain. It is possible, when the facts emerge, that the case of James E. Holmes, the suspect in the Colorado shootings, will spark debate about neurotransmitters and culpability.

Whatever the merit of such cases, it’s worth stressing an important point: as a general matter, it is always true that our brains “made us do it.” Each of our behaviors is always associated with a brain state. If we view every new scientific finding about brain involvement in human behavior as a sign that the behavior was not under the individual’s control, the very notion of responsibility will be threatened. So it is imperative that we think clearly about when brain science frees someone from blame — and when it doesn’t.

Read the full article here.