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

Some Optimism on Brains, Pain, & Law – Let’s See What We Can Achieve

By Martha Farah, Director, University of Pennsylvania Center for Neuroscience & Society

Neurolaw includes some fascinating issues that lack any practical legal significance – for example whether we should consider anyone responsible for anything they do, given that all behavior is physically caused by brain processes.  It also includes some legally important issues that lack intellectual juiciness – like regulatory issues surrounding neurotechnology.

Thank goodness there are also some issues that combine intellectual fascination with practical legal importance. The Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School and the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital recently focused on just such an issue when they convened a meeting of neuroscientists and legal scholars on the brain imaging of pain.

Pain, I learned at this meeting, is at the heart of many legal proceedings. A major problem to be solved in these proceedings is the determination of whether someone is truly in pain. Chronic pain in particular may not have physically obvious causes. There may be clinical and circumstantial evidence of pain – like adhering to a medication regime, seeking surgeries or other interventional procedures, and avoiding pleasurable activities – but often the major evidence of pain is just what someone says that it is. However, the motivation exists to lie about pain – to sue for more money, to obtain disability benefits – and so an objective measure of pain, a “pain-o-meter,” would be helpful.

The “pain-o-meter” is a silly term for a serious idea: the idea of using neuroimaging to assess the likelihood that someone is in pain. In principle it seems pretty straightforward: validate and norm the imaging measures (functional and structural), compare the patient’s values on those measures to the norms, and see how pain-like their values are. Alas, in presentations by an eminent line-up of pain neuroscientists, we learned how far away we currently are from having such validation.  Continue reading »

Law and Neuroscience

By Owen Jones, Rene Marois, Martha Farah, and Hank Greely | The Journal of Neuroscience | November 2013


Law and neuroscience seem strange bedfellows. But the engagement of law with neuroscientific evidence was inevitable. For one thing, the effectiveness of legal systems in regulating behavior and meting out justice often depends on weighing evidence about how and why a person behaved as he or she did. And these are things that neuroscience can sometimes illuminate. For another, lawyers are ethically bound to champion their clients’ interests. So they remain alert for new, relevant, or potentially persuasive information, such as neuroscience may at times offer, that could help to explain or contextualize behavior of their clients. In light of this, and in the wake of remarkable growth in and visibility of neuroscientific research, a distinct field of Law & Neuroscience (sometimes called “neurolaw”) has emerged in barely a decade.

Whether this engagement is ultimately more for better or for worse (there will be both) will depend in large measure on the effectiveness of transdisciplinary partnerships between neuroscientists and legal scholars. How can they best help the legal system to understand both the promise and the perils of using neuroscientific evidence in legal proceedings? And how can they help legal decision-makers draw only legally and scientifically sound inferences about the relationships between particular neuroscientific evidence and particular behaviors?

In this article, we highlight some efforts to establish and expand such partnerships. We identify some of the key reasons why neuroscience may be useful to law, providing examples along the way. In doing so, we hope to further stimulate interdisciplinary communication and collaborative research in this area.

Read the full paper here.