Experimental Neuroethics

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Photo credit: Timothy Epp, Shutterstock

Four years ago, Neil Levy gave the concluding lecture at the first Brain Matters conference in Halifax. He alerted the audience of neuroethicists to the fact that the field of philosophy was undergoing a revolution – rather than muse from their armchairs in the ivory tower, a group of renegade philosophers were carrying out real experiments, asking people what their intuitions were about central issues in philosophy. Dubbed experimental philosophy, the new initiative was met with more than passing resistance from traditional philosophers. The apostate experimental philosophers responded by developing a logo of a burning armchair.

The landmark experiment was carried out by Josh Knobe, and its findings subsequently became known as the Knobe effect (you can watch a great recreation of the phenomenon in this YouTube video). Essentially, what Josh did was repurpose an old method from social psychology called the contrastive vignette technique (CVT) [1]. At its simplest, the CVT involves designing a pair of vignettes that carefully describe a particular situation (in the case of experimental philosophy, one that is often morally charged) but crucially differ in one detail, hence the term contrastive. Respondents see one and only one version of the vignette, and are then asked questions about what they have just read, with responses commonly recorded as a numerical rating on a Likert scale. By comparing the averaged responses between separate groups of people who have read the vignettes, the experimenter can systematically investigate the effects of small changes (of which the respondents are entirely unaware) upon attitudes towards nearly any topic. The experimental philosophers tend to use the technique to explore the meaning of concepts. Neil Levy pointed out that this same approach could, in principle, be applied to the full range of issues in neuroethics.

Neil’s presentation struck me like a thunderbolt. I had come to the field of neuroethics with a background in cellular and molecular biology, and had spent much of my career as a card-carrying reductionist: as a graduate student in the 1980’s, I championing the then-novel technique of recording from single neurons in freely moving animals, and as a postdoc I moved on to the better controlled (if less naturalistic) technique of patch clamp analysis of identified neurons in slices of brains. My subsequent rise through the ranks of academia was one in which I applied quantitative rigor to every question that I asked, and in the circles in which I traveled, this was lauded as the ultimate way to provide reproducible (and by inference, meaningful) results. I saw at once that the CVT opened the door towards doing something similar in the field of neuroethics.

My research group at the National Core for Neuroethics has embraced the use of contrastive vignettes wholeheartedly, and with a nod to the experimental philosophy camp, we call the approach Experimental Neuroethics. The team is applying the technique to a range of issues in contemporary neuroethics, probably best exemplified by our recent publications exploring public attitudes towards cognitive enhancement [2] as well as the acceptability of overt and covert nudges [3].

If the vignettes appear simple, I can assure you that properly crafting them is hard work. We begin with a carefully considered hypothesis and regularly find that the hypothesis morphs substantially (usually into something much more insightful) as the process unfolds. We then compose two or more contrastive vignettes, working hard to have the vignettes as minimally contrastive as possible (one word differences between vignettes is the ultimate goal, but this is often not feasible). Finally, we develop questions; we like to have the wording of the questions always be identical irrespective of the contrastive nature of the vignette.

Then the real fun begins. After a day or two, we assemble as a team and attack our previous work. Inevitably, we find it wanting in some respect. Sometimes, embarrassingly so. We find it best to begin by asking whether the vignette and the questions directly address the hypothesis. Sometimes that means that the hypothesis changes. Nearly always, that means that the vignette changes. This process is repeated again and again, over days and weeks and sometimes months (yes, and even sometimes years!) until we have a set of vignettes that get to the heart of the matter.

At some point late in the process we carry out cognitive pre-testing. This involves sharing the vignette and the questions with someone who has no particular expert knowledge (friends of friends are likely culprits), and debriefing them about what they read. We are sometimes amazed to find that what we intended for people to glean from a vignette is at odds with their reading of the vignette. That sends us back to the drawing board.

We also run some metrics to determine whether the words we have used are understandable by a general audience. We use online readability tests such as this one to establish the educational level required for understanding the vignette; our goal is that no more than a high school education is required. Finally, we launch the survey, recruiting respondents from amongst the thousands of people who have signed up on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – they’re more representative of the real population and aren’t as blatantly WEIRD as typical undergraduate samples. And then we hold our breath.

Once the data is analyzed, we get mired once again in deep discussion. For it is not just the quantitative aspect of Experimental Neuroethics that it satisfying (to me), but also that the data gives us an entirely new benchmark for engaging in the process of wide reflective equilibrium. Throughout this process we remain aware that an ought can not derive from is, but having the data at hand, our version of ought is very much informed by the is. Ultimately, our data emerge in concert with our normative insights, and then one more advantage of Experimental Neuroethics is realized: it is easy for others to replicate our experiments, or even to improve them by taking our vignettes and modifying them to further test their own. This iterative process of replication, critique, and systematic modification has proven to be a robust strategy for advancing insights into the nature of biological and physical phenomena. Only time will tell whether Experimental Neuroethics catches fire in our discipline as it has in the field of philosophy (where it remains controversial). If it does, we can trace it back to Neil’s presentation in Halifax….

[Cross posted at the Neuroethics Blog]


[1] Burstin K, Doughtie E, Raphaeli A. Contrastive Vignette Technique: An indirect Methodology Designed to Address Reactive Social Attitude Measurement1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 1980;10(2):147–65.

[2] Fitz NS, Nadler R, Manogaran P, Chong EWJ, Reiner PB. Public attitudes toward cognitive enhancement. Neuroethics. 2013 doi: 10.1007/s12152-013-9190-z.

[3] Felsen G, Castelo N, Reiner PB. Decisional enhancement and autonomy: public attitudes towards overt and covert nudges. Judgment and Decision Making. 2013;8(3):202–13.

Racing to restoring cognitive function

Wisdom may come with age, but so too does an inexorable decline in cognitive abilities. Whether it is speed of processing, working or long-term memory, it all starts to go downhill as people move into their 30s, and continues as they enter their 40s and beyond (click on the figure for the details). What to do? Some people do crossword puzzles.Mostly they just worry. A few sign up for one of the many brain fitness software suites out there, but do they really work? The answer has mostly been maybe. Until now.

Before getting to the breakthrough, let’s briefly see what the state of affairs were last week. Many studies have shown improvements with brain training, but the gain is mainly in the game; overall, cognitive function is usually not affected. Getting better at a game is all well and good, but that is not what people are after.

One study was a clear exception. In 2008, Jaeggi et al. published a paper in PNAS which showed that one particular game – the N-back task – improved not just task performance but also fluid intelligence. This was met with a great deal of excitement, and you can find many N-back tasks on the internet. But the N-back is hard. It’s also pretty boring. I suppose that is why I have struggled with maintaining a regular practice of N-back training. While no one has disputed Jaeggi et al’s findings, the field was rocked on its heels in 2010 when Adrian Owen and his colleagues at Cambridge published a paper in Nature in which they tested 11,430 people (!!) in Britain. What they reported was that “in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained, no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.” [Notably, the N-back task was not included in the study.]  At the time I wrote that more than anything, Owen’s results were likely to spur further investigation.

And so they have.  In a very thoughtfully designed set of experiments published this past week in Nature, Adam Gazzaley’s group at UCSF report that they have developed a new game called Neuroracer that not only improves the ability of older adults to multitask, but it also improves cognitive control, working memory, and attention; all of these are cognitive domains that are known to degrade in normal aging.  The experiments are exceedingly carefully carried out – there is both an active control group who had a slightly different task and a no-contact control group; neither showed any benefit. [It is not clear whether the game would have a similar effect in younger adults, but you can be sure that those data, and more, are in the pipeline.] What is remarkable is the degree to which the Neuroracer was able to restore cognitive function.

I have not played the Neuroracer game myself, but I know from discussions with Adam that his objective was to solve not just the efficacy side of the equation, but also to make the game interesting. Although it was not discussed in the article, if Neuroracer satisfies this criterion as well, it represents a doubly important advance in the field.

Adam visited us in November 2011 and I had a chance to sit down to talk with him about the degradation of attention that accompanies multitasking in the modern world. The video can be found below.

When is it rational to be nudged?

Five years ago, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published a thoughtful little book called Nudge in which they outlined a broad program for improving the outcomes of human decisions. Drawing on the maturity of the field of behavioural economics, Thaler and Sunstein outlined the myriad ways in which small changes in the environment can affect the choices we make. In the intervening years, interest on the part of governments in developing such programs has grown ever stronger. In Great Britain, the Conservative government of David Cameron established the Behavioural Insights Team in 2010, with Richard Thaler as advisor. Cass Sunstein was appointed Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Barack Obama, where, among other tasks, he developed government-wide regulations that nudge people in numerous ways, although exactly what was done has always been a bit under the radar. Now comes news that the US government is developing its own Behavioral Insights Team, and there is a call  for people with appropriate skills to join.

Nudging is not without its critics. Those with libertarian sensibilities are predictably outraged, even if Thaler and Sunstein described the program as an exercise in libertarian paternalism.The primary concern is that nudging infringes upon autonomy, which brings it directly into the sight lines of neuroethics. The key issues were recently summarized in a short article in The New Scientist by Evan Selinger.

Fair minded individuals may debate the degree to which the infringement upon autonomy engendered by nudges is problematic, but Gidon Felsen, Noah Castelo and I decided to take a different tack.  First of all, we reframed the issue, calling it Decisional Enhancement rather than nudging (that our reframe is, in and of itself, a bit of a nudge did not escape our notice). More importantly, we have begun to explore the question of how the public view the infringement of autonomy that decisional enhancement programs provide. Essentially, we wanted to explore the degree to which people are willing to trade autonomy for better outcomes. The results of our adventures in experimental neuroethics can be viewed in our recently published paper in Judgement and Decision Making.  One key insight is this: when people need help achieving their objectives in life, they are not loathe to give up a bit of autonomy. It does not appear to be the case that people are enthusiastic about giving up autonomy just because their objectives are aligned with the decisional enhancement program. Rather, it is when their objectives align with the program and they recognize that they are struggling with achieving that objective that the endorsement is most evident.  To put it into terms developed by Harry Frankfurt, it seems that autonomy violations are most acceptable when people recognize that their decisions are more likely to follow their lusty first-order desires – to overeat, to spend money foolishly, etc. – than their sober life objectives, what Frankfurt called second-order desires.  Viewed in this light, perhaps it is entirely rational to give up a bit of autonomy to live as we wish.

Neuroscience in the public sphere

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?

Excellent stuff.

Nudge symposium proceedings

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

Use it or lose it

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

On the consequences of personhood

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