About Daniel Buchman

Daniel Buchman is a PhD Student in the Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program. He graduated from McGill University with a Bachelors degr

Are We Living in a Neuro-Culture?

It seems that everywhere I look nowadays, I’m seeing images of, or reading descriptions of, the brain in some shape or form. Sometimes the brain itself is the main focus of a book, movie, advertisement, public health campaign, blog, or news headline. For example, I’ve noticed the brain – or related terms such as ‘neuro’ or ‘mind’ – as the subject of interest in places such as Marco Roth’s piece on The Rise of the Neuronovel, films such as Minority Report and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, covers of popular public interest magazines, the purpose of computer games (‘train your brain!’), and the emergence and convergence of disciplines such as neuro-economics, neuro-ethics, neuro-anthropology, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-law, neuro-philosophy, and those which do not even start with ‘neuro’ (but nonetheless contain the word) such as socio-cognitive-neuroscience and psycho-neuro-endocrinology. Indeed, the field of neuroscience itself could be thought of as a set of disciplines devoted to the study of the mind/brain for years, which converged approximately mid-way through the 20th century. Continue reading

Tobacco Denormalization and Stigma

Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) – Canada’s largest addiction and mental health research and treatment facility – recently announced that come July 2010, three of its principle sites will be entirely smoke free. This announcement appears to be the next step from CAMH’s 2005 non-smoking policy,  in which smoking was prohibited in all buildings and in the designated smoking rooms on inpatient units. Clients, staff and visitors were still able to smoke in designated areas on the grounds.

Justification for the new policy is based on the following argument:

“This is first and foremost part of CAMH’s commitment to transform care for our clients…we should not accept a lower quality of life for people with mental vs physical illness. This decision is equally motivated by health and safety – CAMH has a legal and ethical obligation to provide a safe, hazard-free treatment setting and workplace for our clients, staff, volunteers and visitors. In 2009 the primary cause of death in mental health and addictions populations was tobacco-related medical illness…”

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The Depiction of Addiction

Over at The New Republic, Sally Satel, psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently reviewed the controversial book Addiction: A Disorder of Choice by psychologist Gene Heyman. Heyman’s thesis is that conventional wisdom about addiction being a ‘disease’, or perhaps a ‘brain disease’, is incorrect. Satel quotes Heyman by saying, “that the idea [of] addiction [as] a disease has been based on a limited view of voluntary behavior.” Accordingly, addiction is not an “irresistible act”, as he claims the term ‘addiction’ implies, and is in fact a “disorder of choice”. [Note: I have not read Heyman’s book, so I will not comment on the book directly]. Indeed, Satel conveys Heyman’s position as one that is in opposition to perspectives from powerful public figures that support the view that “Addiction is a Brain Disease, and it Matters.” Satel agrees with Heyman’s position, namely that if addiction is a disease, it is a disease the person chose for herself.

Satel’s review of Addiction prompted a response from writer Sascha Z. Scolbic and Peter Scolbic (TNR’s executive editor), who argued that Satel was puting up a “straw man” argument. [See Satel’s reply to the Scolbic’s here].

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Neuroethics, qu’est que c’est?

I’ll admit that it may seem odd, or perhaps even unnecessary, to begin a post on a neuroethics blog to query the meaning of neuroethics. Although barely into its 8th year as an academicized field of study, the area of inquiry called “neuroethics” has developed a professional society, an academic journal devoted to issues that fall within the bioethics-neuroscience scope, another bearing its namesake, books (e.g., here, here, here, and here), and a few blogs (e.g., here & here) — including this one. Although the Dana Foundation’s “Neuroethics: Mapping the Field” conference is often credited as jump-starting neuroethics, it appears others have being ‘doing neuro-ethics’ well before the conference took shape (see, for instance, Gillett and also Churchland).

In an influential paper, Adina Roskies attempted to define neuroethics by demarcating the “ethics of neuroscience” from the “neuroscience of ethics”(Roskies does note, however, that these two aims can be pursued independently but also tend to affect one another). Roskies original account described the ethics of neuroscience as being somewhat akin to what has been a traditional focus of bioethics research, namely, the ethics of something, e.g., conducting neuroscience research with humans, the ethics of neurotechnology (e.g. deep-brain stimulation) and guidelines for research and clinical practice. The neuroscience of ethics focuses on how philosophical notions of free will, identity and other aspects of moral cognition can be explored through understanding how the brain works. Perhaps a simplistic explanation, since the paper was published in 2002 Roskies’ conception has had an impact on how neuroethics has taken shape. Continue reading

Haiti, Cruise Ships, and Moral Intuitions

The Dominican Republic is a much desired travel location for wealthy sun-seekers. Located on the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic shares the island with another country to the west, Haiti.

Haiti is one of the world’s poorest nations, with escalating rates of HIV/AIDS, tuberculous,  water-borne illnesses, economic deprivation, and extremely high rates of illiteracy. On January 12th, 2010 Haiti was struck by a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, infrastructure destroyed, countless numbers became homeless and displaced, sick, injured, and are without food and water. Many are dying as I write this post. Haiti is in the midst of a severe humanitarian crisis.

Although Haiti was in desperate need of aid and world-wide support well before the earthquake struck, the quake’s occurrence has prompted an outpouring of donations to humanitarian aid organizations and other relief efforts. There are many courageous individuals currently on the ground in Haiti working tirelessly to help those in great need.

Given this escalating crisis, Bert Archer, writing for The Globe and Mail posed a provocative question in an article over the weekend: “One cruise this week docks for sunny fun in the Dominican Republic. Another stops in Haiti. It’s the same island. So why does one seem worse?” Continue reading


The National Core for Neuroethics was recently fortunate to have Grant Gillett, Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Otago, visit and spend time with the group as Cecil H. and Ida Green Visiting Professor.

Gillett’s interests are both extensive and diverse, and draws heavily upon his training in neurosurgery, post-structuralism, and analytic philosophy in his dialogue and writing. Although the thinking of individuals such as Michel Foucault, Aristotle, and Frederich Nietzsche are embedded in many Gillett’s texts, he has a particular affinity for the likes of Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein. From time to time one will catch a glimpse of phenomenologists such as Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty when reading Gillett, in addition to contemporary theorists such as Daniel Dennett.

Professor Gillett gave a series of four lectures in his capacity as Green College Visiting Professor, although he spent a significant amount of time with other groups in both the University community and Vancouver area sharing his wisdom, insight, and love of knowledge.

The four lectures given by Gillett are listed below, with their accompanying abstract. At the end, I will briefly comment on the threads that tie his philosophy together, as opposed to commenting on each lecture individually.

The Cultural Brain: A Neural Palimpsest

To what extent is the brain a biological system best understood in terms of natural science and to what extent is the brain a cultural product? If the brain is a hybrid, how should neuroethics approach the contentious issues raised by contemporary neuroscience such as free will and the nature of consciousness?

The Warrior Gene: A Case for Neuroethical Diagnosis

What is the warrior gene and why is it over-represented in some racial groups? Is the warrior gene the reason why certain groups are disproportionately highly ranked in the statistics of societal discontent, or should we look further?

Neuroethics and Hysteria: The Mind and Neurological Disorder

It is paradoxical that whereas we normally assume that the mind is an elaboration based on underlying brain processes, hysteria forces us to explore a phenomenon where the mind causes a presentation that looks neurological. What is going on in hysteria and how is that a fairly common tendency produces a disorder in which the person concerned does not seem to know what is going on in his or her own mind/brain?

Neuroethics and Human Identity

Neuroethics encounters significant questions of human identity when we examine the moral rights of embryos, people in persistent vegetative states and other forms of brain damage, and cyborgs. What kind of society are we in danger of producing if we allow a functional conception of neuroethics to prevail in our self-understanding?

The philosophical threads that weave Gillett’s thinking (which draw from the spool of theorists listed above) direct attention to the subjective brains of human beings and that individual’s psyche or soul (Gillett, in discussion, goes to considerable lengths to explain that the word ‘psyche’ is derived from the Aristotelian psuche meaning ‘soul’ as opposed to the Judeo-Christian concept of ‘soul’. Thus a neo-Aristotelian view suggests that neurocognitive skills lay the foundation of an individual’s soul). For Gillett, the subjective brain reflects the life of dasein and mitsein (which Gillett compounds into ‘being-in-the-world-with-others’) of which identity reflects how that human being engages with the complex human life-world (following Husserl). And so, the human brain is involved in a cybernetic relationship with the world which makes the human being a relational creature – that is, one’s neural network is inscribed by biology, culture, social and historical context as so becomes an embodied subject. What is more, from a Gillettian/neo-Aristotelian perspective, human subjectively is enmeshed in neurological processes and functions and his or her place in the life-world. Human actions are thus constrained – not determined – by these contingencies which makes each human subject, effectually, unique.

From all of us here at the Core, we thank Professor Gillett for being ever so generous with his time and for truly enriching and enhancing both our brains and lived experiences.

Elana Brief: Neuroethics with a SCWIST

Elana BriefElana Brief SCWIST, a Research Scholar with our group, was recently featured in the Georgia Strait in a weekly column called “Geek Speak.”

In the article, Brief talks about the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology and her work in neuroethics, which includes working with a First Nations community in B.C., looking at cultural perspectives of brain health and aging, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

Nice work Elana!

Congratulations to Bruce Maxwell!

bruce_100_125Congratulations are in order for Bruce Maxwell of the Neuroethics Research Unit at the IRCM in Montreal. Bruce recently received the postdoctoral prize for the “the most outstanding SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship recipient” awarded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Here’s the writeup on Bruce from the SSHRC website:

“Basing family policy purely on scientific claims can sometimes distract our attention from the main issues. Family policy issues are about something larger than a question of science—they’re about the kind of world we want to live in, how we want to raise our children, and what our ability is to inform science. My research provides insight into how to answer these societal questions.”

With ethics training having become mandatory in research disciplines from medicine to business and law, researcher Bruce Maxwell is taking a closer look at where ethics begin.

By studying the moral psychology and ethical education of children, Maxwell will further our understanding of social, emotional and moral development, and how these relate to parenting and family policy.

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Day 4: A Poster on the Neuroscience of Ethics

trolleyAlthough I presented my poster this morning, I’m not going to talk about it here. Rather, I’m going to briefly report and summarize an interesting poster I saw yesterday by graduate student Bradley Thomas, who is in Daniel Tranel‘s lab at the University of Iowa.

The poster was titled The Self-Other Bias in Moral Judgment is Insensitive to Ventromedial Prefrontal Damage. Thomas reported on study that aimed to examine whether the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) is crucial for creating moral judgments about both Self and Other dilemmas, whether the self-other bias of moral judgments about these dilemmas can be replicated, and whether this self-other bias is sensitive to VMPFC damage. This work comes right off the heels of some other writings in this domain, including a recent paper in Neuroethics by Thomas Nadelhoffer and Adam Feltz. Some of Tranel’s previous work with others such as Antonio Damasio and Marc Hauser support the notion that the VMPFC damage increases utilitarian judgments.

The authors recruited 3 groups for experimental study: a) neurologically ‘normals’; b) brain damage comparison; and c) adult-onset VMPC-lesions. They created a novel battery of 12 Self and 12 Other high-conflict personal moral dilemmas, based on the dilemma of the trolley problem. Typically when presented with the trolley-problem thought experiment, participants will endorse a simple utilitarian end – i.e., they will believe it is morally permissible to flip the switch (or pull the lever, depending on the version) to save 5 individuals and the trolley to run over 1 person.

Most notably among their findings was that  individuals with VMPFC damage were most likely to endorse a utilitarian outcome in both Self and Other dilemmas. Accordingly, as the title suggests, the Self-Other bias was insensitive to VMPFC lesions. Thomas and his co-authors suspected that the bias does not appear to be created by the VMPFC and other complex emotional processing. The authors hypothesize that bias in moral judgment may be due to more basic psychological processes, such as an increased aversion to causing self-harm versus another person causing that harm. I wonder, despite the VMPFC damage, if the somatic marker hypothesis may be somewhat relevant here…

I am really looking forward to seeing more work of this kind in the future.

Day 3: Steven Laureys – Eyes Wide Open, Brain Wide Shut? (un)consciousness in the vegetative state

hospitalG120706_228x228This year’s David Kopf Lecture on Neuroethics was given by Steven Laureys from the University of Liege. Dr. Laureys is both a clinician (neurologist) and a scientist, and has written extensively on clinical, and more recently, ethical issues regarding disorders of consciousness (DOC). Consciousness, in particular human consciousness, is one of the most perplexing issues in philosophy of mind and clinical neurology. This topic has actually been on the periphery of my own awareness recently, since Thomas Metzinger and some of his colleagues recently visited our research group.

As SfN-ers flooded into the lecture space, members of Laureys’ COMA Science group handed out surveys for everyone to complete. The survey asked some very sensitive, but no less important on people’s views on disorders of consciousness and what they would do if found to be in a vegetative state. Laureys went through this survey with the audience, after he had made his case for each of the following sections:

(1) The Search for the Neural Correlates of Consciousness; (2) Clinical and Treatment Issues; (3) Ethical Issues. I will briefly describe each of these sections and attempt to summarize Dr. Laureys talk.

1. The Search for the Neural Correlates of Consciousness

Laureys claimed that consciousness can be reduced to two main components: wakefulness and awareness. Indeed, these are both scientific and neuro-philosophical notions. How ought both constructs be defined? What does it mean to be aware? He reviewed the recent imaging literature with regard to Persistent Vegetative State and the more recently constructed, Minimally Conscious State.

2. Clinical and Treatment Issues

Among the tough issues in clinical neurology, a major challenge is that there is no universally accepted criteria for diagnosing the vegetative state. Part of this challenge relates back to the problem of consciousness. Laureys reported on studies by Adrian Owen and others in which levels of activation similar to controls were observed using fMRI who met the criteria for the vegetative state. He used this data to argue that perhaps some individuals in the VS may retain some consciousness. Laureys also argued that patients with DOC can feel pain, which was based on studies (e.g., this one) that observed low level disconnected cortical activation. This indicates, he claimed, that the individual in the study may actually have retained some consciousness in order to “feel” pain. True, while the potential capacity for pain may exist, this does not mean that the individual is subjectively experiencing pain, and if so, to what degree. Second, just because the capacity for pain may exist – in some – it does not mean the subjective experience of suffering also exists.

3. Ethical Issues

Laureys presented a lot of interesting data during the course of his presentation, some of which I have referred to here. Unfortunately, his discussion of the ethical issues were minimal (he did refer briefly to the notion of quality of life). He did, however, refer to a fascinating case where an individual with Locked-in Syndrome was about to be euthanized (permissible in Belgium) and requested that her organs be donated, but did not go deep into the ethics of that case. I was anticipating that Laureys would offer some concrete ethical recommendations for clinical practice and research, but unfortunately that was not the case.  Laureys did, however, refer to a recent paper he co-authored published in the American Journal of Bioethics-Neuroscience calling for an ethical research agenda in DOC.