News and Commentary Archive

Explore recent scientific discoveries and news as well as CLBB events, commentary, and press.


The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior puts the most accurate and actionable neuroscience in the hands of judges, lawyers, policymakers and journalists—people who shape the standards and practices of our legal system and affect its impact on people’s lives. We work to make the legal system more effective and more just for all those affected by the law.

Kids at Risk for Violence: Warning Signs of Aggression

By Gene Beresin, Steve Schlozman, and Judy Edersheim | September 17, 2013 | PBS’s Brains On Trial “Science Blog”

Some kids will become violent as adolescents. Many have a very short fuse, and explode over the smallest thing. Others, like a ticking time bomb harbor pent up anger until something pops. And then there are kids who are the scariest – the ones who silently plan to harm others and don’t just fantasize, but really hurt others, verbally or physically.


What are the warning signs? What can we do if we spot kids early and prevent violence?

If we look at teenagers who have committed violent acts there are thousands with histories of fights, stealing, being the brunt of physical or verbal abuse, and victims of or perpetrators of bullying. Many have had depression, learning disorders, especially language problems. Most have been scapegoated and marginalized. Some were impulsive and just blew a fuse, others planned their offenses.

What can we do about this dilemma?

While we cannot easily identify which kid will be a societal danger, we should take some traits seriously, and if identified, make every attempt toward remediation.

Read the full post on the Brains On Trial website, where you can also find other Neurolaw resources and explore interviews with experts filmed for the show.

The Adolescent Brain: Primed on Thrills and High on Life

By Gene Beresin and Mireya Nadal-Vicens | September 16, 2013 | PBS’s Brains On Trial “Science Blog”

Teenagers are convinced they are ready to take the reins – to decide and act fully, no longer wanting to be held back by overly cautious adults who don’t really ‘get it.’ Neurobiologically speaking, the adolescent brain is poised for impulsivity and thrill-seeking.

Photo credit: Alexandra McHale

In the documentary, “Brains on Trial with Alan Alda,” Jimmy Moran is on trial for attempted murder. Newly 18 years old, from a bad home, addicted to cocaine, questions of whether poor brain function affected his behavior the night he shot an innocent bystander remain constant. And being an adolescent, his brain was already primed for risky behavior.

Two separate but interconnected processes underlie teenage bravado. Firstly, the last wave of neurodevelopment, myelination, has yet to be completed. Myelination is the process of strengthening useful connections between neurons and omitting what is no longer needed.

By adolescence, most of the brain has been myelinated except for the frontal lobe, the center of “executive functioning” where planning, sequencing of activities and prioritizing long-range goals take place. Biologically, the long-range planning part of the brain is simply slower, less ‘hard-wired’ than the here-and-now information-processing parts of the brain.

Secondly, in part due to the slower inputs from the frontal lobe, thrills and rewards are just more thrilling and rewarding to teenagers. The reward center serves to motivate us by producing a small but powerful response to food, sex, and novel situations. Teenagers just get a whooping dose of this. In part due to the slower inputs from the frontal lobe, adolescents perceive short-term rewards as more rewarding than adults, and even small rewards are experienced as larger, better, more engrossing than they do to adults. Jokes are funnier, experiences are often, repeatedly ‘the best,’ everything is more urgent and more intense. Everything is worth doing because it feels so good, so right. The brakes, or the ability to contextualize certain pleasures and to appraise the relevant risks, are simply not hard-wired yet.

Three outside factors emphasize teenage impulsivity…

Read the full post on the Brains On Trial website, where you can also find other Neurolaw resources and explore interviews with experts filmed for the show.

Neuroscientists in Court

By Owen Jones, Anthony Wagner, David Faigman, and Marcus Raichle | Nature Reviews Neuroscience | September 12, 2013


Neuroscientific evidence is increasingly being offered in court cases. Consequently, the legal system needs neuroscientists to act as expert witnesses who can explain the limitations and interpretations of neuroscientific findings so that judges and jurors can make informed and appropriate inferences. The growing role of neuroscientists in court means that neuroscientists should be aware of important differences between the scientific and legal fields, and, especially, how scientific facts can be easily misunderstood by non-scientists, including judges and jurors.

This article describes similarities, as well as key differences, of legal and scientific cultures. And it explains six key principles about neuroscience that those in law need to know.

Read the full paper here.

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.


Neurotechnologies at the intersection of criminal procedure and constitutional law

By Amanda Pustilnik | in The Constitution and the Future of Criminal Justice in America | Cambridge University Press, 2013


The rapid development of neurotechnologies poses novel constitutional issues for criminal law and criminal procedure. These technologies can identify directly from brain waves whether a person is familiar with a stimulus like a face or a weapon, can model blood flow in the brain to indicate whether a person is lying, and can even interfere with brain processes themselves via high-powered magnets to cause a person to be less likely to lie to an investigator. These technologies implicate the constitutional privilege against compelled, self-incriminating speech under the Fifth Amendment and the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Law enforcement use of these technologies will not just require extending existing constitutional doctrine to cover new facts but will challenge these doctrines’ foundations. This short chapter discusses cognitive privacy and liberty under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, showing how current jurisprudence under both amendments stumbles on limited and limiting distinctions between the body and the mind, the physical and the informational. Brain processes and emanations sit at the juncture of these categories. This chapter proposes a way to transcend these limitations while remaining faithful to precedent, extending these important constitutional protections into a new era of direct access to the brain/mind.

Read the full paper here.