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

Is it Time to Pull the Plug on “Brain Death”?

Defined as the permanent cessation of all brain activity as measured by clinical and laboratory tests, brain death is currently accepted in all 50 states and within the context of all major religions.

The concept of brain death itself is a consequence of technology.  After the development of positive-pressure ventilators, a patient’s respiration and circulation could be sustained long after the termination of all brain activity.   Thus, there was an urgent need to clarify what constitutes death. By returning to the biophilosophical concept of the loss of an organism as a whole, medical researchers established brain death as the primary clinical determination.

However, once declared brain dead, a patient can still retain some features associated with the living, such as a beating heart.

Among general audiences, these superficial signs of life can cause confusion. Unlike a persistent vegetative state, in which a patient’s brain stem is still functioning – allowing for the patient to breathe on their own and potentially recover – brain death is irrecoverable. This crucial distinction can be made painstakingly clear via a series of clinical tests, but to a lay observer, the differences can be imperceptible. Continue reading »

Norms and Neurons

Minds, Brains, and LawOn his Neuroethics & Law Blog, editor Adam Kolber has convened its first online book symposium. His guest bloggers, who include CLBB faculty member Amanda Pustilnik, will discuss the recently published Minds, Brains, and the Law by Michael Pardo and Dennis Patterson.

In her post, Pustilnik focuses on questions taken up in the book on whether neuroscience could be used to answer normative questions about responsibility, in legal and criminal settings. For example, could brain scans be used to identify a distinct neural signature for diminished capacity? Highlighting the differences between social (i.e., law) and natural (i.e., neuroscientific) categories, Pustilnik argues that answers to particular normative problems can’t be directly resolved by “looking in the brain.” However, she does think that psychiatry and neuroscience have an important role to play in elucidating empirical impairments for those normative states, and in communicating to law and society what we could reasonably expect from people with those impairments. Read Pustilnik’s post “Norms & Neurons” below.

Michael Pardo and Dennis Patterson have written a Big Book, an ambitious book, on the relationship between neuroscience and law.  Minds, Brains, and Law: The Conceptual Foundations of Law and Neuroscience is the book, or at least one of the books, that the field of law and neuroscience has needed.  To say that neuroscience is or even could be relevant to law rests on important presuppositions about the relationship between brain and mind, the nature of mind, the nature and purposes of law, and the relationship between mind and law.  The theoretical and epistemological underpinnings of these enterprises remain under-examined in law and neuroscience scholarship.  This is not because authors in the field are philosophically naïve – far from.  Rather, it is because of the richness of the material and the newness of the field.  There is much work to be done, and there will be for some time.

P&P great contribution with this work to law and neuroscience scholarship is to offer a non-reductionist argument for the possibility of a meaningful interrelationship between neuroscience and law.  While accepting the materialist premise (there is no ghost in the machine), P&P take aim at a form of reductionism, eliminative materialism, that lies at the heart of much law & neuroscience scholarship.  In so doing, they offer a strong case for the need to understand brains not as the fundamental unit of analysis and bearers of meaning but as components both in and shaped by an integrated system of signs and meanings.  To take possibly unjustified poetic license with their work: Our astrocytes are as stars that live as much in the nomos as in the cosmos.

Read the full post here, on the Neuroethics & Law Blog.

Over the Side With Old Scientific Tenets

Elwood H. Smith for the New York Times

Here are some concepts you might consider tossing out with the Christmas wrappings as you get started on the new year: human nature, cause and effect, the theory of everything, free will and evidence-based medicine.

What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

Those are only a few of the shibboleths, pillars of modern thought or delusions — take your choice — that appear in a new compendium of essays by 166 (and counting) deep thinkers, scientists, writers, blowhards (again, take your choice) as answers to the question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

The discussion is posted at edge.org. Take a look. No matter who you are, you are bound to find something that will drive you crazy.

Continue reading »

PBS and Alan Alda Explore How Neuroscience Could Change Law

This September, a new two-part PBS broadcast hosted by Alan Alda is taking on an issue at the heart of CLBB’s mission: how brain science could improve the criminal justice system.

Speaking with experts including Gene Beresin of Harvard Medical School, Joshua Buckholtz of Harvard University and a CLBB faculty member, Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health, Joshua Greene of Harvard, Owen Jones of Vanderbilt University and Kent Kiehl of the University of New Mexico, Brains on Trial asks:

– Why is there a need to revamp the criminal justice system?
– What do we already know about neuroscience in the courtroom?
– What can future courtrooms expect from neuroscience?

The website for the production includes law and neuroscience resources as well as information about the numerous experts who contributed.

Brains on Trial will air September 11 and 18 on PBS. On September 17, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT will host an event with Alan Alda discussing the production and the issues.’

RSVP for the 9/17 event at MIT with Alan Alda, Steven Morse, Nancy Kanwisher, Josh Greene, and Bob Desimone.

Go to the official page for Brains on Trial.

Read more about Brains on Trial.

 

Seven Ways Neuroscience Aids Law

ABSTRACT: Rapid advances in neuroscience have raised hopes in law, perhaps inevitably, that new techniques for revealing brain function may help to answer perennial questions about the sources, limits, and implications of human behavior, mental states, and psychology. As a consequence, lawyers have sharply increased proffers of neuroscientific evidence in both civil and criminal litigation, and have also invoked neuroscience as relevant to many doctrinal and policy reforms. These new developments make it essential for just legal systems to evaluate and separate legitimate from illegitimate uses of neuroscience. As part of that effort, this forthcoming essay identifies and illustrates seven distinct contexts in which neuroscience – skeptically evaluated but also carefully understood – can be useful to law. The essay is based on a talk delivered at The Vatican, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, November 2012.

Source: Jones, Owen D., Seven Ways Neuroscience Aids Law (June 15, 2013). Neurosciences and the Human Person: New Perspectives on Human Activities (A. Battro, S. Dehaene & W. Singer, eds.) Scripta Varia 121, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican City, 2013, Forthcoming; Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 13-28. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2280500.