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.

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

Me trumps We

Neuroessentialist thinking seems to be seeping into popular discourse more and more with each passing day.  Consider this.

When you buy something, you want to get the best deal possible. The internet has made that easier than ever, with online comparison shopping allowing consumers to shave dollars off the purchase price by comparing the costs at competing retailers. One of the remarkable ‘benefits’ of online retailing, it has also allowed for a loophole that represents a moral dilemmas that we must each evaluate.

The loophole in question is the ability of online retailers to avoid charging customers sales tax, at least in the United States (here in Canada, online retailers, charge local taxes). The loophole arises because retailers are allowed to forego charging state tax to out-of-state residents. Amazon, the Goliath of online sales, appears to be everywhere, but legally is nowhere (well, nearly so – it is obviously in Seattle, where headquarters reside). As a result, in most states, Amazon charges no state tax. If you buy their products and are not charged tax, you are supposed to declare it yourself.  And you do that, don’t you? Continue reading

Dostoevsky – prescient neuroessentialist

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

The true self? It’s all in your head.

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

Rehabilitation, not retribution

My research group has been spending a great deal of time recently discussing responsibility, especially in light of our neuroessentialist perspective.  The germ of the idea is this: everything that we do, every decision that we make is dependent upon the functioning of our brains. Moreover, the entire process is dependent upon the particular details of our brains’ neurochemistry, be it caused by our genetic heritage or our life experience. In fact, at the level of the synapse, the source of the neurochemical arrangement is probably irrelevant, and nature and nurture collapse into synaptic function. No voodoo. No mystery. Just chemistry.

We certainly recognize that such neuroessentialist thinking can be unnerving, and there is even data that suggests that such thinking can increase asocial behaviour (here and here). But a line of reasoning, best enunciated in Josh Greene and Jonathan Cohen’s highly influential paper on neuroscience and the law suggests that it is time to rethink our collective attitudes towards responsibility, especially when we think about how to deal with criminal behaviour. As David Eagleman suggests, perhaps it is time to use our impressive understanding of the human brain to find better ways to rehabilitate criminals rather than punish them.

It turns out that Norway is way ahead. Continue reading

(Neuro)essentializing love

One of the most popular posts of all time here at Neuroethics at the Core is entitled The Science of Love by Sara Parke .  The post deals with the discomfort that Sara felt as she began to explore the  notion that love is mediated by the brain, prompted by work she did in a research lab as an undergraduate at Stanford. Even without a complete understanding of the underlying neurobiology, once one begins to ponder how love might work, most people fall into a well of despair as they realize that love, a most cherished experience, is based upon the firing of neurons and the release of chemicals. Continue reading