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Public Scientific Day Brein & Recht: An overview of the latest developments in research

How does our brain interpret traces of evidence? Can someone who is suffering from brain damage be held accountable for criminal offences? And should it be possible to adjust a criminal’s behaviour with deep brain stimulation? These questions came up during the Public Scientific Day Brein & Recht (Brain & Law) that was held on 16 September. The event was organised by the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition of Leiden University in collaboration with the Municipality of Leiden. Those present were brought up to speed on the latest insights in the field of brain research in relation to criminal law. The programme was split into 3 sessions in which a dozen experts discussed various themes.

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Objective or perspective

Professor Christianna de Poot, Dr Gabry Vanderveen, and Dr Linda Geven kicked off the day with a discussion on the topic ‘truth discovery’. The main question was: how does our brain find and interpret clues or traces, and how can we observe images objectively? Technology is increasingly becoming an important and invaluable addition to our forensic research of crimes. Camera footage can provide an immense boost to forensics. Finding and interpreting traces of evidence, however, remains a job for humans. Research shows that important and clearly visible information is often overlooked when it is located in places where we do not expect it, and camera footage is most definitely not objective. Various expectations send interpretations of a similar image. 

De Poot and Vanderveen used a number of examples to demonstrate how our brain interprets traces and images based on what we already know and emphasised that each trace should be examined closely. Geven concluded the session with a presentation on our brain in the interrogation room. Expectations play a large role in how a suspect is approached during the interrogation. Recent miscarriages of justice have demonstrated that innocent suspects can be pressured into giving false statements and that it is almost impossible to differentiate between these false statements and accurate ones. 
Research could provide an important contribution in tracking false statements to prevent future miscarriages of justice.

Accountable or detrimental

The second session on ‘accountability and sentencing’ was introduced with presentations held by Dr Frank Jonker and Dr Anna van Duijvenvoorde. Van Duijvenvoorde addressed the problem issue of adolescent criminal law. The human brain continues to develop until a person is well into their twenties. Nor does the brain develop in a linear process but in fits and starts. The maximum age for adolescent criminal law, however, is 24 years. 

Jonker then added the ‘brain damage dilemma’ into the mix. Can somebody be held accountable for their behaviour when they are clearly suffering from brain damage? Research has shown that 35% of the inmates is suffering from brain damage, while the Dutch average ranges somewhere between 4 and 6%. There is a clear connection between brain damage and criminal behaviour. Mr Ronny van de Water and Mr Richard Korver closed the session with a debate. Based on a number of different examples, they started a discussion with the audience on accountability and adolescent criminal law. 

Intelligence and intervention

During the final session on ‘penalisation and enforcement’ Dr Jochem Jansen, Professor Jean-Louis van Gelder, and Mr Sjors Lighthart took the audience on a tour past the latest developments surrounding Artificial Intelligence (AI) and neurolaw in criminal law. Various neurobiological characteristics displayed by inmates can be used to make a risk analysis on the likelihood of someone becoming a repeat offender. Neurobiological research can also help determine which therapies will be beneficial to a person and who will be likely to fail the reintegration process. AI can play a fundamental role in this process. Criminal activities are usually self-destructive and cause feelings of shame. By having an inmate interact with an avatar of their future self by means of an AI there is a chance that they will gain a clearer image of the future and will be less inclined to engage in self-destructive actions. 

The following topic to be addressed was 'direct intervention and the use of deep brain stimulation'. Deep brain stimulation can be targeted to direct and influence a delinquent’s behaviour. In order to reduce the urge to act out criminal behaviours. But every human has the right to corporal integrity: the right to oppose substantial intrusions into the body. It is therefore not possible to apply these types of intervention techniques in criminal law without permission. On the other hand, the government should provide inmates with the best possible chance at reintegration. Research has shown that a jail sentence has a negative effect on the development of the brain. Targeted neuro-intervention can contribute to optimising the reintegrated brain and keeping society safe. The session ended with a debate on morals between the speakers and the public. 


Text: Mireille van der Stoep
Images: Anne Hollemans & Catherine Vroon

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