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Who would you rather believe: a brain scan or a psychiatrist

Who would you rather believe: a brain scan or a psychiatrist

Photographer:Fotograaf: archive Siemens

New minor of Human and Legal Decision-Making

MAASTRICHT. What should a judge do with a suspect’s abnormal brain scan? Does he know what he is looking at? And what about psychopaths (snakes in suits) who sometimes successfully hold high-powered jobs in businesses? And: do people always make rational decisions? Problems that require interdisciplinary answers. In the new minor of Human and Legal Decision-Making, legal experts, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, and philosophers join forces. “This is unique in the Netherlands”, emphasises professor Frans Leeuw and Dr. David Roef, two of the initiators.

 

The seventy-year-old man from Zeist who blackmailed Linda and John de Mol - Dutch TV celebrities -  for some time, was allegedly suffering from dementia since 2013. He has been temporarily released from prison, as his condition dramatically deteriorated while he was locked behind bars. What does this mean for the course of justice? “Can neuroscientists determine the role of dementia in the extortion story? And if so, what should a judge do with this? Or is this an example of malingering, the suspect faking a disorder? Can a brain scientist investigate this?”

Over the past few years, there were more than two hundred criminal cases, says David Roef, lecturer at the Faculty of Law, in which neuroscientists played a relevant role. “Cases that required an interdisciplinary approach.” Another example from criminal law: Sietske H., the woman who killed four babies between 2003 and 2009, initially received a twelve-year sentence, but after a psychological examination - she turned out to have a brain defect - her sentence was changed to three years and detention under Her Majesty’s pleasure.

In the minor, students (in principle bachelor’s from all fields are welcome) learn to look beyond the limitations of their own field, says Frans Leeuw, Professor of Law, Public Policy and Social Science Research and also director of Research, Statistics  and Documentation Center (WODC). A lawyer learns how to read an FMRI image; an economist gains more knowledge of the law, and the role of the brain and cognitions within this context. “It is intellectually exciting. Obviously, all sorts of philosophical questions will be dealt with during the four blocks (a total of 24 ECTS, ed.).” As an example, he refers to an American study that proved that American judges were more easily convinced of a suspect’s innocence after studying a brain scan than by a psychiatrist’s evidence. “They would sooner believe the image than the broader picture sketched by an expert,” says Leeuw. “What does this mean for the question: What makes a human being? Are humans indeed only just that image or their brain? We will provide substance to those philosophical questions; they will be given a tremendously practical relevance. We also look at human ideas that are hidden behind human and legal decision-making.” To subsequently emphasise that the core of the minor is not just a legal one. “One block focuses on the various measuring methods used to collect data: testing, neuroimaging and others. A forensic psychologist uses the information acquired from this in criminal justice. Economic insights provide knowledge about decision-making in organisations, not just in businesses but also within the legal domain.”

The “unique” thing about this minor (“the first of its kind in the Netherlands,” according to Leeuw) is not just the interdisciplinary nature, but also its collaboration with WODC, which has a wealth of data, and the pool of guest speakers from the world of science.

 

For more information, visit the new website: www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/minoren
 

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