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

Free Will: Is Your Brain the Boss of You?

Scientific American Blogs | June 30, 2014 | Mark Fischetti

Philosophers have debated for years whether we deliberately make each of the many decisions we make every day, or if our brain does it for us, on autopilot. Neuroscientists have shown, for example, that neurons in the brain initiate our response to various stimuli milliseconds before we’re even aware that we’re taking such an action.

This heady debate has hit a very practical road in the past decade: whether individuals who commit crimes are actually responsible for them. Lawyers have argued in court that if the brain determines the mind, then defendants may not be responsible for their transgressions.

Michael Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is at the forefront of the research into free will, and its implications in courtroom trials and in the expectations of different societies. His thoughts and proclamations are captured in an engaging video called Free Will, created by Joseph LeDoux, a well-known expert on the emotional brain at New York University. The video is the second in a series he is putting together with director Alexis Gambis called My Mind’s Eye. (The first episode featured Ned Block on the mind-body problem.)

Read the rest of the article and view the video on Scientific American Blogs, or read more about Michael Gazzaniga here.

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.

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Watch: “Models of the Mind: How Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Law Collide”

Models of the Mind

Click above to view the flyer for this event.

On April 25 at Harvard Medical School’s Joseph Martin Amphitheater, CLBB joined forces with the Northeastern University’s Affective Science Institute to host a conversation among experts in neuroscience, psychology, and the law about three distinct and sometimes conflicting views on the causes of human behavior.  How do the three models understand cause and effect, attribute blame, and think about rehabilitation?

Panelists included Lisa Feldman Barrett, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University and Research Scientist in the Departments of Psychiatry and Radiology at MGH; Randy Buckner, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Director of Psychiatric Neuroimaging at MGH; Amanda Pustilnik, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Maryland School of Law where she teaches Criminal Law, Evidence, and Law & Neuroscience.

Ed Hundert, Senior Lecturer in Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School, moderated a panel discussion and Audience Q&A following speaker remarks.

Watch the individual presentations below, or visit our “Models of the Mind” channel at Vimeo.com.

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Watch: Edward Hundert discusses “Three Approaches to the Mind”

On April 25th, 2013, CLBB will host an evening of discussion with experts from different disciplines to understand the roots of human behavior, and how neuroscience may be able to inform so-called “Models of the Mind” used in the justice system.

The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Edward Hundert, who in the 50-minute talk here presents a synthesis of ideas about the mind from philosophers, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists in an effort to find a common language through which these diverse views  can contribute insights to one another. Drawing on thinkers from Plato, Kant, Freud, Hegel, and Hume to modern neuroscientists and researchers in artificial intelligence, Dr. Hundert compares the ways various fields interpret the “nature-nurture debate” around the question of how our basic concepts of the world find their way into our brains. He concludes by comparing all of these cognitive theories of knowledge with moral theories of justice, challenging us to appreciate just how interactive the relationship is – in the realms of both knowledge and values – between the human brain and the world we share.

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Did Your Brain Make You Do It?

By John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz | The New York Times | July 27, 2012

Are you responsible for your behavior if your brain “made you do it”?

Often we think not. For example, research now suggests that the brain’s frontal lobes, which are crucial for self-control, are not yet mature in adolescents. This finding has helped shape attitudes about whether young people are fully responsible for their actions. In 2005, when the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for juveniles was unconstitutional, its decision explicitly took into consideration that “parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through late adolescence.”

Similar reasoning is often applied to behavior arising from chemical imbalances in the brain. It is possible, when the facts emerge, that the case of James E. Holmes, the suspect in the Colorado shootings, will spark debate about neurotransmitters and culpability.

Whatever the merit of such cases, it’s worth stressing an important point: as a general matter, it is always true that our brains “made us do it.” Each of our behaviors is always associated with a brain state. If we view every new scientific finding about brain involvement in human behavior as a sign that the behavior was not under the individual’s control, the very notion of responsibility will be threatened. So it is imperative that we think clearly about when brain science frees someone from blame — and when it doesn’t.

Read the full article here.