Lieve Caron‘s post is the third in our BASc@UCL Blog Series in which we showcase the work from the Arts and Sciences (BASc) course taught at University College London (UCL).
The Courtroom ruled by Pharmacology
There was a place reserved for me at a medical school in the Netherlands, and I even already had a room. But a month before the start of my first term at university, something seemed to be missing. I wasn’t as excited about the prospect of studying medicine as I thought. Even though I knew that I wanted to study something that could help people, I was now unsure that medicine was the way to go for me. So I decided to forego my place at university and take a gap year instead.
In my gap year I started looking at universities outside the Netherlands, and my eye fell on the USA. Studying in the US had one major advantage over anywhere in Europe, namely they study Liberal Arts and Science. So in the first two years of the degree there is no specialisation. This sounded like the perfect fit for me, it would allow me to explore all my interests rather than restrict me to one specialisation. I applied to numerous universities, and while I was searching I stumbled upon the Arts and Sciences (BASc) degree at UCL. The BASc sounded perfect for me, since it would allow me to explore all my interests. Additionally, it was in London, a city I had loved since I was a child.
When I chose my major and minor, I still had medicine in mind. So I majored in Health and Environment and minored in Societies. My first year was filled with biomedical modules, such as anatomy and pharmacology. Due to a clash in my timetable I was unable to take economics for my minor and had to decide on something else. One of the other options was “law in action”, I had never considered law before, but since the BASc is all about being able to explore new and unexpected things, I decided to take it. From the first lecture onwards I was fascinated by it. The cases we read were like stories to me, which we then had to analyse and systematically apply. This engaged both the part of me that loved history and the stories it told, and my scientific side that was more systematic. From my second year onwards I took my main modules in law, and brought the medical side down to pharmacology modules.
For the final year dissertation it seemed logical to combine the two main subjects I was studying; law and neuropharmacology. The idea came to me suddenly, what if I looked at the developments in pharmacology, and would try to apply them to law. This is where the title “The Courtroom ruled by Pharmacology” came from. I looked at the part of the brain called the amygdala, since this part has been implicated in implicit bias. I conducted a systematic review of the literature, and found that serotonin in the amygdala might be responsible for implicit bias. Implicit bias is where a judgment about a person is formed within seconds of meeting them. It is the way our brain helps us to make sense of the world. In the court system, however, lady justice is supposed to be blind. So how can we use this new pharmacological information to our advantage to make the court system fairer? My main suggestion was to make the process a blind one, so the judge would never see the accused, in order to remove any implicit bias there might be.
Further empirical evidence for this phenomenon was provided by Leach et al (2016) in their research on lie detecting among veiled witnesses. Their research showed that it was easier for people to assess whether someone was lying when the witness wore a niqab, since there were less distracting cues. This ties in with my findings, and points to the possibility of a fairer courtroom.
Since UCL my love for law has not gone away, I am currently pursuing a fast-track LL.B at the University of Edinburgh, and would love to use all the knowledge that I have gathered, as a lawyer, to help as many people as I can.
Artwork by Madelein Witt