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

Hank Greely: Neuroimaging, Mindreading, and the Courts

Neuroimaging is making subjective mental states, like physical and emotional pain, visible and verifiable. How much should the law change with this new insight into the mind? Professor Hank Greely of the Stanford School of Law shares an optimistic yet cautious exploration of these cutting-edge issues in law & neuroscience. Dr. Greely is Director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences and former Co-director of the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project.

The talk was delivered as the Stuart Rome Lecture during the conference “Imaging the Brain, Changing Minds: Chronic Pain Neuroimaging and the Law,” at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law on April 24, 2014, presented in part by the Law & Health Care Program.

NSF Launches Understanding the Brain Portal

NSF Understanding the Brain Portal

NSF has launched a new portal dedicated to the agency’s brain research funding opportunities and news. The Understanding the Brain portal arrives on the first anniversary of President Barack Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative announcement, and will allow visitors to the site to find brain-related information across the agency in one place.

The portal includes NSF’s specific thematic research areas for the BRAIN Initiative, the latest funding and event announcements, and a list of core programs that support neuroscience research, in addition to public-facing articles and videos about new findings.

Explore the portal here.

Watch: “Brainwashed? What Neuroscience Can – and Can’t – Tell Us About Ourselves”

Brainwashed? What Neuroscience Can – and Can't – Tell Us About Ourselves While brain science has helped to characterize many aspects of the human experience, there is no consensus about whether it could also be used to help address some of society’s “big” problems.

On Thursday, April 17, 2014, CLBB hosted a conversation at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center of Harvard Medical School, with experts in psychology, philosophy and neuroscience to debate whether neuroscience has anything useful to add to our understanding of thorny ethical and legal questions, such as whether addiction should be considered a “brain disease,” the nature of free will, and how societies should determine personal responsibility.  Video of the event is included below in its entirety and at our Vimeo page.

A recurring theme of the evening’s discussion was how to determine which level of analysis – from molecules and genes to brain structures and systems to individuals and social systems – is the most important to consider for understanding the mind.  While all panelists agreed that any discussion of the brain’s contribution to behavior should be embedded within a multi-level approach, there was considerable disagreement around whether the brain’s contribution should be considered privileged or not. 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.

Decision-making, explained?

Decision making and memory are lynchpins of human behavior and cognition.  And the emerging science of the failures of decision making and memory is becoming increasingly relevant for discussions of public policy and the criminal justice system.

“We don’t know much, but we know a few things that can be put to use,” Kahneman said.

In a talk Tuesday at Harvard Business School, psychologist and Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman sat down with Harvard Law Professor and decision scholar Cass Sunstein to discuss Kahnemann’s research into how the mind processes information, the distinction between experience and memory, and it’s role in shaping the field of behavioral economics.  Colleen Walsh, staff writer for the Harvard Gazette, reported:

While Kahneman said he initially thought that determining “whether people were happy in their life is more important than how happy they are when they think about their life,” he later changed his mind based on an understanding of how people plan for the future.

“In a way, when you think about the future you are maximizing the qualities of your anticipated memories. If this is true, it’s absurd to have a conception of well-being which has nothing to do with what people are actually trying to achieve.”

During a question-and-answer session, one member of the audience wondered if it is premature to use what are sometimes considered “primitive” behavioral findings in shaping public policy. (In recent years, several countries, including the United States, have created behavioral insights teams to help their governments design better policy.)

“We don’t know much, but we know a few things that can be put to use,” Kahneman said.

See the full article in the Harvard Gazette here. By Colleen Walsh, February 5, 2014.