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 »

How to Become a ‘Superager’

By Lisa Feldman Barrett | The New York Times | December 31, 2016

Think about the people in your life who are 65 or older. Some of them are experiencing the usual mental difficulties of old age, like forgetfulness or a dwindling attention span. Yet others somehow manage to remain mentally sharp. My father-in-law, a retired doctor, is 83 and he still edits books and runs several medical websites.

Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline? “Superagers” (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn’t merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds. My colleagues and I at Massachusetts General Hospital recently studied superagers to understand what made them tick. 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 »

Clues to How ‘Super-Agers’ Retain Young Memories

CLBB Faculty Members Dr. Bradford Dickerson and Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett were featured for their recently-published research on older adults with extraordinary memory capacities. According to the article, “The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, is the first step in a research program aimed at understanding how some older adults retain youthful thinking abilities and the brain circuits that support those abilities.” Dr. Feldman Barrett notes:

“We also examined a group of regions known as the salience network, which is involved in identifying information that is important and needs attention for specific situations, and found preserved thickness among super-agers in several regions, including the anterior insula and orbitofrontal cortex.”

About the significance of the study, Dr. Dickerson comments:

“We desperately need to understand how some older adults are able to function very well into their seventh, eight, and ninth decades. This could provide important clues about how to prevent the decline in memory and thinking that accompanies aging in most of us.”

Read the full article, “Clues to How ‘Super-Agers’ Retain Young Memories”, published in the Harvard Gazette on September 13, 2016.

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 »