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

An Architecture for Encoding Sentence Meaning in Left Mid-Superior Temporal Cortex

By Steven M. Frankland and Joshua D. Greene | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences | August 24, 2015

Abstract:

Human brains flexibly combine the meanings of words to compose structured thoughts. For example, by combining the meanings of “bite,” “dog,” and “man,” we can think about a dog biting a man, or a man biting a dog. Here, in two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments using multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA), we identify a region of left mid-superior temporal cortex (lmSTC) that flexibly encodes “who did what to whom” in visually presented sentences. We find that lmSTC represents the current values of abstract semantic variables (“Who did it?” and “To whom was it done?”) in distinct subregions. Experiment 1 first identifies a broad region of lmSTC whose activity patterns (i) facilitate decoding of structure-dependent sentence meaning (“Who did what to whom?”) and (ii) predict affect-related amygdala responses that depend on this information (e.g., “the baby kicked the grandfather” vs. “the grandfather kicked the baby”). Experiment 2 then identifies distinct, but neighboring, subregions of lmSTC whose activity patterns carry information about the identity of the current “agent” (“Who did it?”) and the current “patient” (To whom was it done?”). These neighboring subregions lie along the upper bank of the superior temporal sulcus and the lateral bank of the superior temporal gyrus, respectively. At a high level, these regions may function like topographically defined data registers, encoding the fluctuating values of abstract semantic variables. This functional architecture, which in key respects resembles that of a classical computer, may play a critical role in enabling humans to flexibly generate complex thoughts.

Read the full article here.

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Moral Judgment and Decision Making

Joshua D. Greene | in “The Moral Brain: A Multidisciplinary Perspective” | March 2015

Cognitive neuroscience aims to understand the mind in physical terms. This endeavor assumes that the mind can be understood in physical terms, and, insofar as it is successful, validates that assumption. Against this philosophical backdrop, the cognitive neuroscience of moral judgment takes on special significance. Moral judgment is, for many, the quintessential operation of the mind beyond the body, the earthly signature of the soul (Greene, 2011). (In many religions it is, after all, the quality of a soul’s moral judgment that determines where it ends up.) Thus, the prospect of understanding moral judgment in physical terms is especially alluring, or unsettling, depending on your point of view. In this brief review I provide a progress report on our attempts to understand how the human brain makes moral judgments and decisions.

Read the full chapter here.

How to build trust and fight tribalism to stimulate innovation

By Conner Forrest | TechRepublic | October 2, 2014

The concept of tribalism, i.e. loyalty and dedication to one’s group or “tribe,” is evident, to some degree, in every part of daily life. In professional organizations, we often refer to these tribes as silos, and conversations and relations among these silos are often tense.

At the 14th annual IdeaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky Joshua D. Greene, psychology professor and director of the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard University, gave a presentation called “Us/Them,” breaking down why it is difficult to encourage cooperation between groups or tribes and offering some ways to get past it.

Greene opened by explaining the economics theory of the Tragedy of the Commons, which states that in certain situations when everybody does what’s best for themselves, it leaves everyone else worse off. It is the concept of me versus the concept of us.

Even if we agree that we are going to cooperate, there are many open questions about the terms of the cooperation. Greene posed the question of how, in a multi-tribal world, are we going to find rules and systems to get along. Continue reading »

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.

WATCH: CLBB’s study on brain stimulation and decision-making

By Carey Goldberg | WBUR CommonHealth | August 7, 2014
(part of the Brain Matters series)

The final installment of WBUR’s Brain Matters series featured work from two CLBB faculty, Joshua Buckholtz and Joshua Greene. The tDCS research by Buckholtz discussed below was made possible through a grant from CLBB’s Law and Neuroscience Pilot Fund program, which supports scientists to engage in innovative research at the interface of neuroscience and the law.

Harvard brain scientist Joshua Buckholtz has never forgotten a convict he met back when he was an undergrad conducting psychological tests in prisons. The man had beaten another man nearly to death for stepping on his foot in a dance club.

“I wanted to ask him,” he recalls, “‘In what world was the reward of beating this person so severely, for this — to me — minor infraction, worth having terrible food and barbed wire around you?’ ”

But over the years, Buckholtz became convinced that this bad deed was a result of faulty brain processing, perhaps in a circuit called the frontostriatal dopamine system. In an impulsive person’s brain, he says, attention just gets so narrowly focused on an immediate reward that, in effect, the future disappears. Continue reading »