Here at Neuroethics at the Core, we have been trumpeting the rise of neuroessentialist thinking in the eyes of the public for some time (here and here and here), and it represents one of the two pillars of my research program in neuroethics. In today’s issue of Neuron, there is a great paper by O’Connor et al. entitled “Neuroscience in the Public Sphere“. The abstract sums it up rather well:
The media are increasingly fascinated by neuroscience. Here, we consider how neuroscientific discoveries are thematically represented in the popular press and the implications this has for society. In communicating research, neuroscientists should be sensitive to the social consequences neuroscientific information may have once it enters the public sphere.
There are a few points that I would like to highlight. First, as my graduate student Roland Nadler relayed in an email to me last night after we both had a first glance at the paper:
…this is a fantastic article from start to finish. Worth really savoring as an example of how to do the normative stuff well, and its lessons are important for us to avoid producing stuff that could be tarred as neurotrash. Particularly neat that they get the definition of neuroessentialism right. Their discussion of it near the end is trenchant. It makes it clear that some philosophical work needs to be done to save neuroessentialism from the pitfalls of essentialism tout court - as they rightly point out, the latter is some bad juju.
On the topic of neuroessentialism, I particularly liked their final paragraph:
Neuroscience does not take place in a vacuum, and it is important to maintain sensitivity to the social implications, whether positive or negative, it may have as it manifests in real-world social contexts. It appears that the brain has been instantiated as a benchmark in public dialogue, and reference to brain research is now a powerful rhetorical tool. The key questions to be addressed in the coming years revolve around how this tool is employed and the effects this may have on society’s conceptual, behavioral, and institutional repertoires.
Not only do O’Connor et al. provide thoughtful normative comments, they also carried out empirical work, employing content analysis to study the themes that arise most frequently in the popular press. At the top of the list is enhancement of the brain, which represented 28.3% of the articles retrieved from the LexisNexis database. As this just so happens to be the other pillar of my research program, how could I not like this paper?
The current issue of the European Journal of Risk Regulation has the proceedings of a symposium on nudging, and it contains a set of insightful papers. The introduction by the editor says it best.
The EJRR starts the new year by hosting a pioneering symposium devoted to one of the latest policy innovations that is currently experimented in the United Kingdom and the United States: the ubiquitous, yet controversial, Nudge. This idea originates from the homonymous, 2008 best-selling book published by the economist Richard Thaler and the legal scholar Cass Sunstein. By building upon the findings of behavioural research, they refute the classic economic assumption that “each of us thinks and chooses unfailingly well”1 and they advocate the need for public authorities to nudge people to make decisions that serve their own long-term interests without however removing their right to choose.
At a time in which governments are taking considerable interest in the use of nudging, we have asked some of the leading authors who have already contributed to the literature surrounding the regulatory innovations, generally referred as New Governance, to share their ideas on this appealing regulatory approach.
In his opening essay, Nudging Healthy Lifestyles, Adam Burgess provides a critical assessment of the introduction of behavioural, nudging approaches to correct lifestyle behaviours in the UK. His thought-provoking analysis triggered a lively debate that has been framed along the subsequent essays signed by On Amir and Orly Lobel, Evan Selinger and Kyle Powys White, Alberto Alemanno and Luc Bovens.
The article by Alberto Alemanno, Managing Editor of the European Journal of Risk Regulation is a fulsome account of the propriety of nudging in the case of tobacco control (recently highlighted by Roland on these pages); that nudging in this instance overcomes many of the objections that are raised in the other contributions to the symposium.
I also liked Selinger & White’s analysis of nudging in the context of Brad Allenby and Dan Sarewitz’s insight on the three levels by which we should view technological fixes (as articulated in their excellent book The Techno-Human Condition, which I have written about before). In particular, they point out the naiveté of only considering shop-floor arguments, a topic we will return to again.
Hat tip to Marleen Eijkholt for alerting me to this symposium.
Image credit: Transcapitalist
As the technology of memorializing dialogue (in stone, no less) came into vogue, Socrates famously admonished Phaedrus
his protegé Plato on its dangers: if people are able to write everything down, their ability to remember what was said will diminish. Plato, being an early version of an early adopter, memorialized the debate, and that is why the apocryphal story is with us today. But even without a grounding in modern neurobiology, Socrates had a valid point: the plasticity of our brains are such that the less we use them for a given function, the more our ability to carry out that function is impaired.
This becomes a tricky issue when thinking about the world in which we live today. In a thoughtful essay over at The Atlantic, Evan Selinger reviews a number of arguments for and against the use of ‘apps’ to make us, as he puts it in his title, a better person. What Evan is particularly concerned with are digital willpower enhancements: the suite of technologies that have been developed to help us do everything from not being distracted by a tweet to refrain from eating more than we would like. Continue reading
Personhood is in the news. Mississippi is considering a ballot initiative to define a fertilized egg as having personhood. This morning, the New York Times published an editorial on the matter, and the arguments were all framed in consequentialist terms:
“Besides outlawing all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest or when a woman’s life is in danger, and banning any contraception that may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, including birth control pills, the amendment carries many implications, some quite serious.”
“It could curtail medical research involving embryos, shutter fertility clinics and put doctors in legal jeopardy for providing needed medical care that might endanger a pregnancy. Pregnant women also could become subject to criminal prosecution. A fertilized egg might be eligible to inherit money or be counted when drawing voting districts by population. Because a multitude of laws use the terms “person” or “people,” there would be no shortage of unintended consequences.”
It is a certainty that there would be consequences to such legislation, but what is interesting is that all of the parties involved in the debate skirt the fundamental issue: what do we mean by personhood anyway? Continue reading
In their recent book The Techno-Human Condition, Brad Allenby and Dan Sarewitz address a number of issues that arise when thinking about enhancements. One of the points that they make, which bears some consideration, is that the most enhanced people in our society today are soldiers. The military has an interest in enhancing its soldiers – physically and mentally – and as a result soldiers are at the tip of the spear of enhancement technologies. Nonetheless, as Allenby and Sarewitz wryly point out, there is no groundswell of desire to become a soldier so that one can be enhanced.
Lest one think that this is all just idle speculation, one need only read a 2005 paper by Andrew B. Meadows, a US Air Force Major with the title Fatigue in Continuous and Sustained Airpower Operations: Review of Pharmacologic Countermeasures and Policy Recommendations. The paper begins by reviewing the Tarnak Farms friendly fire incident:
“On the evening of 17 April 2002, two US F-16s were airborne near Kandahar, Afghanistan providing on-call support for coalition ground forces as part of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. The two pilots, COFFEE 51 and COFFEE 52, had been flying for approximately six hours when they detected what they perceived to be surface-to-air fire off the right side of their formation. Subsequently, COFFEE 52 requested permission from the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to employ his 20mm cannon in response to the threat. After a series of radio communications between the F-16s and the AWACS, COFFEE 52 called “self-defense” in response to seeing several men gathered near an artillery piece and released a 500-pound laser guided bomb on the target. Two minutes and twenty seconds had elapsed from the request for 20mm cannon fire and release of the bomb. The bomb detonated three feet from the gathering of men, killing four and wounding eight. The men were Canadian – friendly forces conducting a training exercise in the area (Dumas 2002).” Continue reading
Neuroessentialism, for those who have not followed my discussion of the topic in these pages and elsewhere, is the position that we are our brains. That is not to say that we are not also our genes, our bodies, our social networks, or even our computers, if one considers the extended mind hypothesis - we are all those things too. Rather the part of me that I care the most about is my brain (no offence Woody) – that three pound mass between my ears that contains my memories, my emotions, my intellect, my world view and more. Much much more.
Steven Pinker, writing in The Blank Slate, serves up a version of this perspective by referring to Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis in which Crick suggested that “all our thoughts and feelings, joys and aches, dreams and wishes consist in the physiological activity of our brain.” Pinker quite correctly points out that “Jaded neuroscientists, who take the idea for granted, snickered at the title.” I distinctly remember doing just that back in 1994 when Crick’s book first appeared, wondering to myself “What’s so astonishing about that?” Or, as I am wont to say when discussions touch on the topic arise in the conference room the Core, “If X (choose your phenomenon – love, hate, rationality, irrationality – the list goes on and on) does not derive from the activity of the brain, what else might cause it?” That usually evokes deathly silence (and some not-so-friendly glares from those who find the concept unsettling). Continue reading
In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of attention paid to a group of highly capable hackers who call themselves LulzSec, having broken into websites as diverse as Sony, Nintendo, the CIA, and the US Senate, among others. They recently disbanded after a 50 day spree that garnered a great deal of media attention. The group has said that they do it for the fun, or Lulz of it, rather than having any particular political agenda as other groups such as Anonymous have done. Apparently, this has not been sitting well with other netizens who feel that some hacktivist norms have been violated. And so a group calling themselves Web Ninjas have turned the tables on LulzSec, publishing the ’DOx’ (hacker slang for personal information) of LulzSec members, effectively outing them. This is, of course, dangerous, and LulzSec has predictably threatened revenge.
What is interesting about this chain of events is that the norms are ones that have arisen amongst people who otherwise countenance hacking, a form of behaviour that is at a minimum an intrusion on the privacy of others. But societies develop in all sorts of ways, and what we are witnessing is a form of altruistic punishment playing out amongst competing groups of underground netizens. Altruistic punishment is a form of norm violation enforcement where an individual, or group of individuals, is willing to put themselves at some disadvantage in order to enforce what is considered a social more; in this case, it is the easily anticipated revenge that represents the disadvantage to the Web Ninjas. The behaviour has been a favourite of neuroeconomics, and is thought to be an important part of the social glue that holds cooperating societies together. It appears that norm violations grate on us deeply, whether in the real world or out there in the anarchistic universe of cyberspace.
Image credit: er0n22
Given Japan’s traditional lead in robotics, it is perhaps no surprise that the all-female Japanese pop idol group AKB 48 has just added a robot to its cast of 61 members. There is a great article over at Atlantic Wire about the synthetic band adding a synthetic member to their group.
It turns out that this kind of advance is both mesmerizing and at the same time evokes the proverbial yuk factor. As robots appear more and more human, we tend to accept them up to a certain point, and then it becomes downright creepy. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese robotics scientist, described the phenomenon as Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) which translates into ‘uncanny valley’, shown in the figure above.
The phenomenon of the uncanny valley is not just something that humans appreciate: it appears to exist in sub-human primates as well. What is not clear is whether given repeated exposure to such golems, humans will become desensitized and the uncanny valley will disappear. After all, when heart transplants were first described, there was both universal astonishment and outrage (a good summary can be found in this pdf); today, in jurisdictions where such procedures are common, heart transplants barely merit mention.
The uncanny valley has also been suggested to be a challenge to acceptance of the types of radical enhancement that transhumanists envision – James Cascio has written a thoughtful piece on the topic, dubbing it the second uncanny valley.
Of course, as with all things, there is nothing new under the (rising) sun. Predating AKB48′s addition of a robot to pop culture, Jonathan Brigg penned a song with the title Bukimi No Tani (the Uncanny Valley). Listen and enjoy.
Image from Steckenfinger and Ghazanfar
Three Mile Island
In 1979, I was in graduate school in Philadelphia, a city in which I had been living for seven years. As is the case with most people of university age, I had a cadre of close friends for whom I would give the world. Or at least so I thought.
As it happens, I also had a cousin who lived in Philadelphia, with whom I had had a sometimes frosty relationship. Despite the fact that we lived within 10 blocks of each other, we saw each other no more than a couple of times a year, events that I believe we both approached with equal amounts of dread and delight.
In March of that year, a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, less than 100 miles from where I was, experienced a partial meltdown. There were a few tense days. I remember one morning in particular being sufficiently charged with anxiety that I packed my car with some provisions, planning to leave town if things did not improve soon. The question was, who was I going to take with me, as none of my close friends had cars of their own.
Actually, I didn’t even ask the question. I knew. I called my cousin and told her that I was leaving town that afternoon, and that if she wished, she (and her husband) could come with me. In the end, things calmed down just before we were set to leave, and Three Mile Island became a memorable blip in the history of the nuclear power industry. But for me, it taught me a deep lesson about the power of genetic relatedness and altruistic behaviour, one which has now been formally tested.
Josh Knobe has an op-ed piece in The New York Times today about the nature of the true self. In the article, he raises the question of whether the true self is reflected in decisions that are made upon rational reflection or those that are made based upon following one’s natural urges. Philosophers, Knobe argues, tend to favour rational reflection, while non-philosophers endorse following those natural urges wherever they lead. Actually, both are probably right.
The problem I believe comes from the question itself – what is the true self? As with many concepts that we humans have developed in the course of trying to make sense of the world, we fall into the trap of thinking that there is one thing that represents the true self. Not so, say the neuroessentialists (me, for instance) who argue that the self is the sum total of the activity of all of the constituent elements of the brain. If one accepts this premise, then both natural urges and rational reflection represent the true self. That they may sometimes be in conflict highlights the cognitive dissonance that the addict feels when, via rational reflection they want to quit smoking and yet, following their ‘natural’ urges, succumb to lighting another cigarette. Such cognitive dissonance is a common feature of everyday life. Continue reading