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

Pinpointing Punishment

CLBB Faculty Member Josh Buckholtz is the lead author of a new, pioneering study revealing insights into how humans make decisions about punishment and process blameworthiness. This study has important implications for the field of law and neuroscience, and was made possible in part by support from the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior. Below is an article describing the findings.  Continue reading »

From Blame to Punishment: Disrupting Prefrontal Cortex Activity Reveals Norm Enforcement Mechanisms

By Joshua W. Buckholtz, Justin W. Martin, Michael T. Treadway, Katherine Jan, David H. Zald, Owen Jones, and René Marois | Neuron | September 16, 2015

Summary:

The social welfare provided by cooperation depends on the enforcement of social norms. Determining blameworthiness and assigning a deserved punishment are two cognitive cornerstones of norm enforcement. Although prior work has implicated the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) in norm-based judgments, the relative contribution of this region to blameworthiness and punishment decisions remains poorly understood. Here, we used repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and fMRI to determine the specific role of DLPFC function in norm-enforcement behavior. DLPFC rTMS reduced punishment for wrongful acts without affecting blameworthiness ratings, and fMRI revealed punishment-selective DLPFC recruitment, suggesting that these two facets of norm-based decision making are neurobiologically dissociable. Finally, we show that DLPFC rTMS affects punishment decision making by altering the integration of information about culpability and harm. Together, these findings reveal a selective, causal role for DLPFC in norm enforcement: representational integration of the distinct information streams used to make punishment decisions.

Read the full paper here.

Nancy Gertner: “My Drug War Sentences were ‘Unfair and Disproportionate'”

CLBB faculty member Nancy Gertner was featured in The Atlantic for her remarks on the Drug War at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival. Speaking from her 17 years of experience as a federal judge, Gertner likened the damage done by the drug war to the destruction of cities in World War II. From the article:

Among 500 sanctions that [Gertner] handed down, “80 percent I believe were unfair and disproportionate,” she said. “I left the bench in 2011 to join the Harvard faculty to write about those stories––to write about how it came to pass that I was obliged to sentence people to terms that, frankly, made no sense under any philosophy.”

“This is a war that I saw destroy lives,” she said. “It eliminated a generation of African American men, covered our racism in ostensibly neutral guidelines and mandatory minimums… and created an intergenerational problem––although I wasn’t on the bench long enough to see this, we know that the sons and daughters of the people we sentenced are in trouble, and are in trouble with the criminal justice system.”

Read the full piece from The Atlantic, Federal Judge: My Drug War Sentences were ‘Unfair and Disproportionate,'” by Conor Friedersdorf, published June 29, 2015.

Fault trumps gruesome evidence when it comes to meting out punishment

By David Salisbury | Vanderbilt University Research News | 3 August 2014

Issues of crime and punishment, vengeance and justice date back to the dawn of human history, but it is only in the last few years that scientists have begun exploring the basic nature of the complex neural processes in the brain that underlie these fundamental behaviors.

Now a new brain imaging study – published online Aug. 3 by the journal Nature Neuroscience has identified the brain mechanisms that underlie our judgment of how severely a person who has harmed another should be punished. Specifically, the study determined how the area of the brain that determines whether such an act was intentional or unintentional trumps the emotional urge to punish the person, however gruesome the harm may be. Continue reading »