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

Steve Hyman on Translational Neuroscience

Hyman_150x150Steven Hyman is a co-editor of the new book, Translational Neuroscience: Toward New Therapies, published by the MIT Press. This volume, composed of insights from expert contributors, takes a look at the current state of translational neuroscience, challenges it faces, and effective ways forward. In overview:

Today, translational neuroscience faces significant challenges. Available therapies to treat brain and nervous system disorders are extremely limited and dated, and further development has effectively ceased. Disinvestment by the private sector occurred just as promising new technologies in genomics, stem cell biology, and neuroscience emerged to offer new possibilities. In this volume, experts from both academia and industry discuss how novel technologies and reworked translation concepts can create a more effective translational neuroscience.

The contributors consider such topics as using genomics and neuroscience for better diagnostics and biomarker identification; new approaches to disease based on stem cell technology and more careful use of animal models; and greater attention to human biology and what it will take to make new therapies available for clinical use. They conclude with a conceptual roadmap for an effective and credible translational neuroscience—one informed by a disease-focused knowledge base and clinical experience.

Dr. Hyman is also a featured contributor to the new book, Free Will and the Brain: Neuroscientific, Philosophical, and Legal Perspectives, edited by Walter Glannon and published by Cambridge University Press. His chapter, “Neurobiology Collides with Moral and Criminal Responsibility: The Result is Double Vision”, falls under Part V of the book, dealing with the legal implications of neuroscience, and including a chapter from Dr. Stephen Morse.

Order Translational Neuroscience: Toward New Therapies and Free Will and the Brain today!

Judith Edersheim Answers: Can Neuroscience Ever Have a Place in the Courtroom?

CLBB Co-Director Dr. Judith Edersheim shared her expert knowledge with Dylan Goldstein of Brain Decoder on the role of neuroscience in the courtroom. She notes:

There is an indisputable core of cases in which neuroscience by all accounts should be in the courtroom. Cases where you have a lesion or defect and you can make a very certain causal link to the behavior at issue.

At the same time, she highlights the limitations of relying solely on neuroscience in legal cases:

Scholars have been trying to crack this issue for a long time, and the problem is taking group data and applying it to an individual. If you have a range of behaviors and a range of deficits in a group, we still can’t reliably place one individual along the continuum.

Our links between brain and behavior are not always solid enough to prove causation…. If you’re going to assert causation with a lesion, you have to say that this lesion is responsible for the behavior in a fairly clear way, and that no other brain regions are helping or compensating. In an organism with tremendous variation, it’s not always easy to say.

Read the rest of the piece from Brain Decoder, “Can Neuroscience Ever Have a Place in the Courtroom?”, by Dylan Goldstein, published August 12, 2015.

The Neural Representation of Typical and Atypical Experiences of Negative Images: Comparing Fear, Disgust and Morbid Fascination

By Suzanne Oosterwijk, Kristen A. LindquistMorenikeji Adebayo, and Lisa Feldman Barrett | Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience | July 14, 2015

Abstract:

Negative stimuli do not only evoke fear or disgust, but can also evoke a state of “morbid fascination” which is an urge to approach and explore a negative stimulus. In the present neuroimaging study, we applied an innovative method to investigate the neural systems involved in typical and atypical conceptualizations of negative images. Participants received false feedback labeling their mental experience as fear, disgust or morbid fascination. This manipulation was successful; participants judged the false feedback correct for 70% of the trials on average. The neuroimaging results demonstrated differential activity within regions in the ‘neural reference space for discrete emotion’ depending on the type of feedback. We found robust differences in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the lateral orbitofrontal cortex comparing morbid fascination to control feedback. More subtle differences in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the lateral orbitofrontal cortex were also found between morbid fascination feedback and the other emotion feedback conditions. The present study is the first to forward evidence about the neural representation of the experimentally unexplored state of morbid fascination. In line with a constructionist framework, our findings suggest that neural resources associated with the process of conceptualization contribute to the neural representation of this state.

Read the full article here.

LISTEN – Dr. Edersheim on the Adolescent Brain

CLBB Co-Director Dr. Edersheim appeared on an episode of The Checkup, a health podcast by WBUR and Slate. In an episode entitled “Teenage Zombies”, Dr. Edersheim offers insight into how adolescent brain structure and developmental changes influence decision-making and behavior. She discusses how these changes intersect with the legal system, and raises important questions about how the juvenile justice system affects healthy neurodevelopment. Listen to her commentary, shortly after the 15:20 minute mark:

Listen to the full episode of The Checkup here.

Hard Feelings: Science’s Struggle to Define Emotions

By Julie Beck | The Atlantic | February 24, 2015

When Paul Ekman was a grad student in the 1950s, psychologists were mostly ignoring emotions. Most psychology research at the time was focused on behaviorism—classical conditioning and the like. Silvan Tomkins was the one other person Ekman knew of who was studying emotions, and he’d done a little work on facial expressions that Ekman saw as extremely promising.

“To me it was obvious,” Ekman says. “There’s gold in those hills; I have to find a way to mine it.”

For his first cross-cultural studies in the 1960s, he traveled around the U.S., Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. In each location, he showed people photos of different facial expressions and asked them to match the images with six different emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust. “There was very high agreement,” Ekman says. People tended to match smiling faces with “happiness,” furrow-browed, tight-lipped faces with “anger,” and so on.

But these responses could have been influenced by culture. The best way to test whether emotions were truly universal, he thought, would be to repeat his experiment in a totally remote society that hadn’t been exposed to Western media. So he planned a trip to Papua New Guinea, his confidence bolstered by films he’d seen of the island’s isolated cultures: “I never saw an expression I wasn’t familiar with in our culture,” he says.

Once there, he showed locals the same photos he’d shown his other research subjects. He gave them a choice between three photos and asked them to pick images that matched various stories (such as “this man’s child has just died”). Adult participants chose the expected emotion between 28 and 100 percent of the time, depending which photos they were choosing among. (The 28 percent was a bit of an outlier: That was when people had to choose between fear, surprise, and sadness. The next lowest rate was 48 percent.)

And so the six emotions used in Ekman’s studies came to be known as the “basic emotions” all humans recognize and experience. Some researchers now say there are fewer than six basic emotions, and some say there are more (Ekman himself has now scaled up to 21), but the idea remains the same: Emotions are biologically innate, universal to all humans, and displayed through facial expressions. Ekman, now a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, with his own company called The Paul Ekman Group, was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2009, thanks to this work.

But despite the theory’s prominence, there are scientists who disagree, and the debate over the nature of emotion has been reinvigorated in recent years. While it would be easy to paint the argument as two-sided—pro-universality versus anti-universality, or Ekman’s cronies versus his critics—I found that everyone I spoke to for this article thinks about emotion a little differently.

Read the full article here, featuring CLBB Faculty Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on emotion.