News and Commentary Archive

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


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

Do Not Rely on Facial Expressions for How People Are Feeling

The Economist reported on a recently published study by CLBB Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, which complicated our understanding of facial expression and emotions. Dr. Lisa Feldman was interviewed for the article and her study was featured prominently:

“As Lisa Feldman Barrett, one of the authors of the study, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, told the AAAS meeting in Seattle, ‘We surprised ourselve’. Dr Feldman Barrett is a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and along with her colleagues she found that, on average, adults in urban cultures scowled when they were angry 30% of the time. Which meant that some 70% of the time they did not scowl when angry. Instead, they did something else with their faces. People also scowled when they were not angry. ‘They scowl when they’re concentrating, they scowl when someone tells them a bad joke, they scowl when they have gas, they scowl for lots of reasons,’ says Dr Feldman Barrett.

A scowl, the researchers concluded, is certainly one expression of anger. But it is not the only way people express that emotion. The ambiguous nature of facial expressions was not restricted to anger, but seemed valid for all six of the emotional categories that they examined: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.”

Additionally, the article also highlighted the significant of this research:

“All this raises questions about the efforts of information-technology companies to develop artificial-intelligence algorithms which can recognise facial expressions and work out a person’s underlying emotional state. Microsoft, for example, claims its “Emotion api” is able to detect what people are feeling by examining video footage of them. Another of the study’s authors, however, expressed scepticism. Aleix Martinez, a computer engineer at Ohio State University, said that companies attempting to extract emotions from images of faces have failed to understand the importance of context.”

Read the full article, “Do not rely on facial expressions for how people are feeling”, published by The Economist on February 20, 2020.

Approaching Aging Federal Judges in America

CLBB Executive Director Francis Shen was interviewed on his forthcoming law review article, which addresses the challenge of cognitive decline in aging state and federal judges. Francis notes:

“The challenge is particularly difficult because each individual’s brain ages differently. While an 80-year old judge is at significantly greater risk for dementia than a 50-year old judge, it does not follow that all 80-year old judges have diminished cognitive capacities, nor that all 50-year old judges are free from dementia. To successfully meet the challenge of aging judges requires individualized assessment.”

And he suggests:

“My proposal is straightforward: we ought to require testing (at least every 5 years) of judges, but we should also require that the results of the testing remain fully confidential and private, with no exceptions. Privacy is important because it empowers judges, is less likely to become politicized, and can be administered outside of media scrutiny. There are many possible tests, and combinations of tests, that could be administered.”

On the role of neuroscience:

“New tools, including neuroimaging, may allow us to better differentiate between different aging brains, and also to identify pathology earlier than we have been able to do in the past. These advances should allow judges to better understand how their brains are aging and to act proactively.”

Read the full article, “Approaching Aging Federal Judges in America: Interview with Francis X. Shen”, from the Ohio State Law Journal on November 26, 2019.

3 Hours of Exercise a Week May Lower Your Depression Risk

The New York Times reported on a recently published study from CLBB affiliated faculty member Dr. Jordan Smoller’s lab, which found observational evidence to suggest that physical activity is related to mental health, regardless of genetic vulnerability. The study was featured prominently in the article:

“So, for the new study, which was published this month in Depression and Anxiety, researchers at Harvard University and other institutions decided to look into those issues. They began by turning to a trove of health data gathered for the ongoing Partners Biobank study. It contains records for thousands of men and women in the greater Boston area who have provided DNA samples and opened their electronic health records to investigators.

The researchers pulled the records of almost 8,000 of these men and women who had filled out a questionnaire about exercise habits. It asked them to recall how much time each week during the past year they had spent in a variety of activities. Those activities included walking, whether for exercise or transportation, running, biking, using exercise machines, or attending dance or yoga classes.

The researchers then examined the men’s and women’s DNA, looking for genetic variations believed to increase the risk for depression, and scored their volunteers as being at high, moderate or low inherited risk for depression.

They also checked each person’s medical records for codes indicating a diagnosis of depression, either before they joined the biobank or for two years afterward.

Then the researchers crosschecked all of this data and soon noted several interesting and consistent patterns. Perhaps least surprising, those men and women harboring a high genetic risk for depression were more likely, in general, to develop depression than volunteers with low risk scores.

At the same time, physically active people had less risk than people who rarely moved, and the type of exercise barely mattered. If someone spent at least three hours a week participating in any activity, whether it was vigorous, such as running, or gentler, like yoga or walking, he or she was less likely to become depressed than sedentary volunteers, and the risk fell another 17 percent with each additional 30 minutes or so of daily activity.

This link between movement and improved mental health held true for people who had experienced depression in the past. If they reported exercising now, their risk for a subsequent episode of depression fell, compared to the risks for inactive people with a history of depression.

Exercise also substantially altered the risk calculus for people whose DNA predisposed them to depression. If they carried multiple worrisome gene snippets but often exercised, they were no more likely to develop depression than inactive people with little genetic risk.

In effect, physical activity “neutralized” much of the added risk for people born with a propensity for depression, says Karmel Choi, a clinical and research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who led the new study.

Exercise did not erase the risk of depression for everyone, she continues. Some active people developed depression. But exercise buffered the risks, even for people born with a predilection for the condition.

This kind of observational study cannot show us, though, if being physically active directly causes people to remain mentally healthy, only that exercise and mental health are linked. It also relied on people’s memories of how much they had exercised recently, which can be notoriously unreliable. In addition, it looked at preventing depression, not treating it.

Despite those caveats, the results suggest that “physical activity of many kinds seems to have beneficial effects” for mental health, says Dr. Jordan Smoller, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.”

Read the full article, “3 Hours of Exercise a Week May Lower Your Depression Risk”, published by the New York Times on November 20, 2019.

CLBB in the Classroom in Spring 2020

CLBB affiliated faculty are offering classes in the intersections of neuroscience, law and ethics this semester. Read below for more information on these exciting opportunities to learn from the country’s leading thinkers in law and neuroscience.

Law and Neuroscience at Harvard Law School

The flagship seminar is Law and Neuroscience, open to Harvard Law School students. Law and Neuroscience is taught by Judge Nancy Gertner (Ret.), Senior Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and CLBB Managing Director. The seminar features a world-class roster of CLBB affiliated faculty and guest scientists to help explore core topics in law and neuroscience. CLBB Co-Director Dr. Judy Edersheim, JD, MD and CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis Shen, JD, PhD, will be in class each session to provide medical and legal perspectives.

Course Type: Harvard Law School Seminar (2 credits)
Meeting Time: Thursdays, 5:15 – 7:15 pm
Instructor: Judge Nancy Gertner (Ret.)

Description: What’s going on inside the minds of criminal defendants? And what about the judges, jurors, and attorneys who adjudicate them? Are addicts responsible? Can violent offenders be rehabilitated? Do we have free will? How can neuroscience inform criminal sentencing? This seminar on law and neuroscience explores questions such as these through the innovative lens of modern neuroscience. The seminar features guest lectures by world-leading experts in neuroscience, and explores how criminal law’s ancient assumptions about human decision-making, emotions, and memory are increasingly being challenged by modern neuroscience through novel evidence and innovative legal arguments. Students will explore the legal implications of the neuroscience of hate, love, memory, lying, trauma, stress, violence, addiction, false confessions, adolescence, juvenile justice, and much more. We will look critically at efforts to use neuroimaging in court, and this will necessarily lead us to consider the relationship between law and science, more generally, and neuroscience in particular. The seminar will develop legal writing skills, as well as prepare students for engagement with expert testimony, criminal law and procedure, and complex litigation involving science and law.

Confirmed guest speakers include: Dr. Judith Edersheim, JD, MD, Co-Founder and Co-Director, Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital; Dr. Francis Shen, JD, PhD, co-author of the first casebook on Law and Neuroscience; Dr. Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School; Attorney Marsha Levick, JD, Chief Legal Officer and Co-Founder, Juvenile Law Center; Dr. Leah Somerville, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University;  Dr. Roger Weiss, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School; Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University; Dr. Daniel L. Schacter, PhD, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; Dr. Jordan Smoller, MD, ScD, MGH Trustees Endowed Chair in Psychiatric Neuroscience; and Adam Haar Horowitz, MIT Department of Cognitive Science, MIT Media Lab.

Enrollment in this seminar is available for Harvard Law School students. Students interested should email Judge Gertner.

Neuroethics at Harvard Medical School

For students in the Masters of Bioethics program and for medical students at Harvard Medical School, directed by CLBB Director of Law & Ethics Dr. Rebecca Weintraub Brendel, MD, JD, there is an option to enroll in Neuroethics, co-taught by Dr. Joe Giacino, PhD and CLBB Executive Director Dr. Francis Shen, JD, PhD.

Course Type: Masters in Bioethics Seminar (2 credits)
Meeting Time: Thursdays, 2:00 – 3:45 pm Eastern Instructors: Dr. Joe Giacino and Dr. Francis Shen

Description: This seminar-style course undertakes a survey of the ethical issues related to current and future neurotechnologies. These include such topics as consciousness, selfhood, and free will; human-computer interaction (including artificial intelligence and deep learning); brain-computer interfaces; the use of neuroscience in the courts; and cognitive enhancement. The course covers many topics related to medical care for patients with neurological disorders, including disorders of consciousness, deciding for others, preclinical imaging and genetic testing for patients with neurological disorders, and clinical research on neural engineering devices.
Confirmed guest speakers include Dr. Leigh Hochberg, MD, PhD on brain-machine interface, Dr. Robert Troug, MD on brain death, and Dr. Justin Baker, MD, PhD and Dr. Benjamin Silverman, MD on deep phenotyping.

Masters in Bioethics students and Harvard Medical School students interested in this course should email Dr. Shen

A Student’s Guide to Law and Neuroscience

On August 8th, 2019, the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior hosted a webinar offering information and resources to students interested in careers involving the intersection of law and neuroscience. The webinar was led by Exec. Dir. Dr. Francis X. Shen. You can watch the video here for free, but you have to register.