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?
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
In an essay in recent issue of Current Biology, a team of neuroscientists and philosophers examine the neuroethics of transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), a relatively inexpensive means of modifying human brain activity that is touted as potentially being at the forefront of a new wave of cognitive enhancement. The article has garnered a great deal of interest in the press (for example here and here and here), and the reasons are unsurprising: the prospect of a device that is cheap (probably), safe (maybe), and effective (time will tell) is something akin to the holy grail of cognitive enhancement. If the initial claims for TDCS hold up, the device may have an impact the practice of enhancement in the relatively near term. As a result, the urgency with which our community must think through the relevant ethical issues intensifies. Continue reading
There has been raucous furor over the decision of Kathleen Sibelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, to overrule the FDA’s approval of the drug known as Plan B One-Step as an over-the-counter drug. It has never previously transpired that the FDA has been overruled on a matter that falls under its jurisdiction such as this, and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg issued a carefully worded response which, given that Sibelius is her boss, was remarkable for its forthrightness: Continue reading
The New Scientist reports that Brain Plasticity, Inc. a developer of cognitive training games, has entered into discussions with the FDA to market one of its brain training software packages as a bona fide therapeutic. The issue is of interest on many accounts, and the New Scientist article covers many of the obvious ones that were discussed at the Entertainment Software and Cognitive Neurotherapeutics Society meeting held last week in San Francisco. Noteworthy among them are the hope that FDA approval will bring validity to a field that has both serious practitioners and
charlatans others who cut corners, as well as the concern that FDA approval might slow down progress, as the approval process is likely to be glacial compared to the pace of change in software development.
But if we unpack this a bit, we find that there are deeper levels of significance, and at least one of these are is worthy of further discussion. Continue reading
Slate is sponsoring a discussion on transhumanism. The players are Kyle Munkittrick (pro) and the tag team of Brad Allenby (against, sort of) and Nicholas Agar (against in all likelihood, although his post is not yet up). And if you are in the DC area, you can hear Brad and Dan Sarewitz, co-authors of the book The Techno-Human Condition (highly recommended!!) debate the issues with Emily Yoffe of Slate as the moderator.
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
University of Mainz, Germany
July 7-9, 2011
This conference on Neuroenhancement will be the final conference of the Canadian-German research project “Normality, Normalization and Enhancement in the Neurosciences: Ethical, Sociocultural and Neuropsychiatric Aspects of Cognitive Enhancement”. The aim of the conference is to provide a forum for the interdisciplinary discussion of medical, ethical, social and legal aspects of neuroenhancement. In addition, during the conference, the results of the research project “Normality, Normalization and Enhancement in the Neurosciences” will be presented. Continue reading
Over at Disruptive Demographics, Joseph Coughlin, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, talk about Generation Expectation as part of a forum on “What’s Next? How Technology will Revolutionize the Boomer Generation”. Coughlin’s video argues that it is not the baby boomers numbers, not their wealth, not their experiences, nor their education that are worth paying attention to, but how these factors converge together to contribute to create Generation Expectation, composed of people who expect to live longer and to live better. Notice that he does not think that they expect to live forever (i.e. they are not transhumanists) nor does he think that they will want to pursue radical enhancements. However, they will be amenable to using technology to improve their lives. The ability of this generation to drive trends in North America has been a defining feature of the last 50 years; it is likely that they will continue to do so, with everything from cognitive enhancers (writ large) to social media. As Coughlin says, “the new expectations of the next generation of old will drive markets and demand innovations in products, services and public policy.”
Link to Disruptive Demographics.
Registration is now open for the 2011 Sharp Brains Summit (full disclosure – I am a speaker this year). Sharp Brains is an organization that follows the business of brain fitness software and is primarily dedicated to promoting the business model of selling software. At the same time, Alvaro and his team are quite serious about highlighting the best ways that we can improve our brains (non-pharmacologically, that is), and the information that Sharp Brains provides is not only intriguing but often practical. If you are at all interested in the latest and greatest in this rapidly growing field, by all means attend.
Even better, you don’t have to go anywhere!! This is a virtual conference, so all that you need is a computer (you need to be able to run Flash, but if you can watch YouTube videos, you are all set) to attend from the comfort of your own home or office. I attended the 2010 Summit, and it was remarkably effective – not only did it save travel expenses and time for me (not to mention that it was environmentally responsible), but it turned out that the virtual conference had an advantage over in-person conferences in one way. Most people have had the experience that some of the most valuable discussions at conferences occur not from the podium but in the hallway. The virtual conference software allows for hallway conversations, but the bulk of that conversation occurs as a public comment stream. Getting to hear what many people are saying in the ‘hallway’ is much better than hearing only one person, and if you like what they say, you can send them a note and continue your conversation as a private one.
For the full list of speakers, go here.
For a brief intro to virtual conferences, go here.