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

Psychopaths: Cold Blood Or Broken Circuit? Inmate Brain Scans Find New Flaws

This interview with Dr. Joshua Buckholtz comes in light of his recently-published research on the brain connectivity of psychopaths within an inmate population.

By Carey Goldberg | WBUR | July 7, 2017

You might think the defining feature of psychopaths is that they’re heartless: willing and sometimes eager to inflict suffering because they lack empathy. But a new Harvard-led study out in the journal Neuron highlights a less obvious aspect of the typical psychopath: poor decision-making.

Psychopaths’ brains seem to be wired so that they are poor at taking into account how bad they’ll feel in the future about what makes them feel good in the present, the study finds. And it suggests that perhaps, at the heart of the psychopath problem, is a brain that’s poor at generating simulations — whether of other people’s feelings or of the future.

Does this let psychopaths off the hook for their anti-social actions? No, but see how you feel after you read my conversation (below, lightly edited) with the study’s senior author, Harvard associate professor Joshua Buckholtz. His research team gathered their data by trundling a mobile MRI scanner to prisons in the Midwest and scanning inmates’ brains.

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The Brains Of Psychopaths May Be Wired Differently Than Yours Or Mine

The Huffington Post highlights recently-published research by CLBB’s Dr. Joshua Buckholtz on the brain connectivity of psychopaths. In dispelling various misconceptions about psychopathy, the article notes:

Traditionally, scientists have seen psychopaths as “these cold-blooded, emotionless predators” who “do all of these terrible, terrible things because they don’t feel emotions” like the rest of us do, said Joshua Buckholtz, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University.

The new study, published July 5 in the journal Neuron, suggests the problem may not simply be their emotional capacity. 

About the study’s findings, Dr. Buckholtz notes:

“We know that the brain is networked,” Buckholtz said. “Individual regions don’t work in isolation, and there are lots of really exquisite and nuanced patterns of regulatory control all throughout the brain.”

Researchers mapped the connections between the ventral striatum and other regions of the brain, and found that inmates with higher levels of psychopathy had weaker connections between the ventral striatum and the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is associated with decision-making focused on the future.

Those two results together, Buckholtz said, suggest that psychopaths have “something of a broken regulatory circuit.”

To read more about the study’s design and conclusions, read the full article, “The Brains Of Psychopaths May Be Wired Differently Than Yours Or Mine”, published by The Huffington Post on July 5, 2017.

WATCH — How Emotions Are Made

Click event poster to RSVP

Why do emotions feel automatic and uncontrollable? Does rational thought really control emotion? How does emotion affect disease? How can you make your children more emotionally intelligent?

A new theory of how the brain constructs emotions could revolutionize our understanding of the human mind.

How Emotions Are Made answers these questions and many more, revealing the latest research and intriguing practical applications of the new science of emotion, mind, and brain. Join psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett as she discusses her new book and its implications for psychology, health care, the legal system, and more. CLBB Faculty Member Dr. Joshua Buckholtz (of the Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital) will serve as a commentator, while New York Times editor James Ryerson will moderate the conversation and subsequent audience Q&A.

This event will be held on Thursday, April 13, 2017, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Bornstein Amphitheater, from 7:00-8:30 pm. 

Make sure to RSVP for the event here!

This event is free and open to the public. A brief reception will precede the event from 6:30-7:00 PM.

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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.

Selective Mapping of Psychopathy and Externalizing to Dissociable Circuits for Inhibitory Self-Control

By Alexandra M. Rodman, Erik K. Kastman, Hayley M. Dorfman, Arielle Baskin-Sommers, Kent A. Kiehl, Joseph P. Newman, and Joshua W. Buckholtz | Clinical Psychological Science | May 2, 2016

Abstract:

Antisociality is commonly conceptualized as a unitary construct, but there is considerable evidence for multidimensionality. In particular, two partially dissociable symptom clusters—psychopathy and externalizing—have divergent associations to clinical and forensic outcomes and are linked to unique patterns executive dysfunction. Here, we used fMRI in a sample of incarcerated offenders to map these dimensions of antisocial behavior to brain circuits underlying two aspects of inhibitory self-control: interference suppression and response inhibition. We found that psychopathy and externalizing are characterized by unique and task-selective patterns of dysfunction. Although higher levels of psychopathy predicted increased activity within a distributed frontoparietal network for interference suppression, externalizing did not predict brain activity during attentional control. By contrast, each dimension had opposite associations to frontoparietal activity during response inhibition. These findings provide neurobiological evidence supporting the fractionation of antisocial behavior and identify dissociable mechanisms through which different facets predispose dysfunction and impairment.

Read the full article here.