The neuroscience of peak oil

greenbrainIn case you thought that the Society for Neuroscience conference was the only neuroethics game in town over the last couple of weeks, think again. The closing talk of the International Peak Oil conference — held here in Denver and organized by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas — also touched on the topic, despite never using the word “neuroethics.” The talk was given by Nate Hagens, who is interested in the connection between how we make decisions and the environmental consequences of the gathering energy crisis. The problem is that we as a species are not good at properly evaluating the costs (or benefits) of punishments (or rewards) that occur in the future. Not surprisingly, we are impulsive. Such “discounting” of the future has been observed in just about every species in which it has been studied, and the phenomenon has even been examined at the level of single neurons. This discounting wasn’t a big problem for most of human history, but it is now that our decisions can fundamentally affect the future. Climate change is an important example: We drive our car to the store because it gets us what we want, fast, but we don’t consider the environmental cost of those kilometers driven.

Instead of summarizing the talk, I’ll point you to a blog post of Nate’s on the topic (but I can’t resist mentioning one interesting impulsivity statistic he pointed out: Colorado, my new home state, has the lowest incidence of obesity in the US! We’re number 1!). Fortunately Nate isn’t the only one making this brain-environment connection: the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions has been studying this as well. Even the popular press (if any press is popular, these days) is on the case: See here and here.
It’s pretty clear that many of the grave threats to our environment are man-made, and they wouldn’t have come about without the evolutionary explosion of human intelligence (no comment on the intelligence of individuals who don’t believe we pose a threat to the environment in the first place). So our big brains have gotten us into this mess, but the real question is: Can they get us out?


No more free (as in beer) rides?

The field of neuroethics is concerned with the ethical, legal, and social implications of neuroscience research. Often this concern is expressed in cautionary and implicitly disapproving terms; for example, on the use of fMRI for lie detection. However, neuroethicists also point out the upside of neuroscience advances, as in the cognitive enhancement debate: While enhancement could lead to ethically troubling dilemmas, there is also a potential upside to society if safe and effective forms of enhancement are developed.
A recent paper by Krajbich et al. is a welcome example of this upside, in which the authors present a method for using fMRI to solve the “free rider problem.” This refers to the observation that individuals pay less for a public good than it is worth to them. Since the good will be produced anyway, they “ride free,” to the detriment of the group as a whole. A related problem is that individuals tend to underreport how much a public resource is worth to them if the amount they pay for it depends on their report. But it is of course difficult to know by how much they underreport. fMRI gets around this problem by “predicting” the value of the good directly from neural activity (or, more accurately, blood flow associated with neural activity), without relying solely on the individual’s report. See the paper for all the gory details.
There are several practical reasons that this method can not be immediately applied to solve actual real-world problems. First of all, it is not trivial to record brain activity (even with methods other than fMRI), and there’s no “bulk discount” where large groups are involved. Second, the resolution with which the investigators were able to predict individual’s assignments of value in this study is not sufficient to actually be of use to solve the free rider problem.
Even if these problems are overcome, which is feasible, concerns about privacy would remain. If it were viable to use brain activity to mitigate a social problem, should individuals be forced to reveal their true preferences (i.e., brain activity)? You can file that under the individual-rights vs. greater-good debate.
Nevertheless, this paper serves as a welcome reminder that new neuroscience research and technology can be used for good, despite the numerous examples of its ethically troubling uses. Part of our role as neuroethicists is to leverage the benefits of neuroscience for the betterment of society, or at least to point out when others do so, so it’s nice to see research along these lines.

Autonomy under fire in the health care debate

The recent hubbub over a supposed provision for “death panels” in the health care bill being considered by the U.S. Congress has revealed widespread misunderstanding among the American public of the purpose of advance directives for end-of-life care.

To briefly recap: Sarah Palin fired a broadside with her statement that “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care.” She was apparently referring to an amendment that would insure counseling on advance directives for end-of-life decisions. And now we have mass outrage about the government putting granny to sleep.

The purpose of an advance directive is to allow an individual to make decisions, while of sound mind, about her medical care at some point in the future when she may be incapable of making a decision (e.g., because she is in a coma). Such directives commonly take two forms: Writing a living will allows an individual to specify what treatment she would and would not want given a particular scenario (e.g., “do not resuscitate”), and designating a power-of-attorney authorizes a representative (such as a spouse) to make decisions on her behalf should she be incapable. The purpose of these directives is give the patient more power in deciding her options, and they arose as part of the shift away from the medical paternalism of the past (“Doctor knows best”) toward increased patient autonomy and control of their own medical care. Advance directives have some problems, from the practical to the existentialist, but it is generally agreed that they enhance patients’ control over their own treatment. They are legal and used in all 50 U.S. states, Canada, and many other countries. You might think that a political party such as the GOP, which claims to value personal freedom, would be all for promoting advance directives.

So why the outrage over encouraging advance directives? Probably ignorance. Most protesters probably don’t understand the purpose of advance directives (which is not entirely their fault), and Palin was able to manipulate them to score political points. But the more interesting question is, if those opposed did understand advance directives but also knew where they came from, then where would they stand? Advance directives grew out of the “patients’ rights” movement, which paralleled other rights movements of the 1960s. At the risk of over-generalizing, there is likely a large overlap between those protesting the health care plan, and those who disliked such rights movements and would be happy to return to the “good old days” when doctors made all the decisions. So would they choose increased individual freedom or the comfort of paternalistic medical care? Such a choice might cause some heads to explode, creating a messy preexisting condition.

One upside to this story is that it’s put advance directives in the news, offering an opportunity to increase awareness about them among the general public. So perhaps some good will come of it.

Of course, we haven’t even mentioned the right to life or how the government would ration care differently than private insurers already do, both of which are neuroethically-related topics relevant to the health care debate. We’ll save that for another post.