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

Graphic Warnings on Cigarettes: Nudge or Shove? A Neuro-Perspective

Although the topic of cigarette packaging regulation may not leap immediately to mind when one thinks “neuroethics,” this Bob Greene opinion piece over at CNN nonetheless touched off a stimulating discussion among some of us at the Core recently. The neuroethics connection, in fact, struck us as quite natural: our group has researched (and blogged about) the ethics of “nudging” frequently of late, and, as I worded it when I first emailed the article around, “certainly the images at issue here are a kind of behavioural nudge.” The question that we grappled with was whether the kind of nudge that the graphic warning labels provide is warranted in the case of cigarettes. And, indeed, that discussion called my original characterization into question. Do these labels truly constitute a nudge – a subtle biasing technique that makes a particular option more cognitively accessible than another while preserving the freedom to choose between them – or are they something more akin to a “shove?”

One of the least gruesome of the proposed images for cigarette packs.

As with any highly politicized issue, the question of whether cigarettes ought to be labeled with disturbing imagery is likely to be filleted into oblivion by pundits, bloggers, legal experts, economists, et cetera, et cetera. All I hope to do here, then, is sketch some ways in which the view from neuroethics – informed as it is by philosophy and the cognitive sciences – can shed some interesting and hopefully useful light on the question. Continue reading

TDCS does not reduce the authenticity objection

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

A modest proposal: introduce bioethical review into the drug approval process

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 High Price of Materialism

The Center for a New American Dream has just posted a great video by Tim Kasser entitled The High Price of Materialism.  In the video, Tim points out the myriad ways in which consumer culture degrades the quality of our lives. Worth noticing are the myriad neuroethical issues that he raises, from the effects of advertising upon our brains to the education that we provide to our children.

For a list of references on the subject, visit here

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

There they go again

The New York Times had done it again. You would have thought that they had learned their lesson after publishing a rather poorly designed study using fMRI to wax poetic on the various candidates in the 2008 presidential election on the op-ed page; a subsequent letter to the editor signed by 17 experts in brain imaging not only debunked the findings, but added that “the results reported in the article were apparently not peer-reviewed, nor was sufficient detail provided to evaluate the conclusions.” Blog posts galore (here and here and here) and online magazines (here and here) heaped on the scorn, with more than one commentator noting that the op-ed piece seemed more like a thinly veiled advertisement for the private company involved than proper investigation.

But did they learn?  Apparently not.

In today’s New York Times, Martin Lindstrom has a high-profile op-ed piece in which he concludes that the relationship between individuals and their iPhones is more like love than it is like addiction. The conclusion may or may not be true, but the methods he uses to arrive at that conclusion – fMRI experiments with 8 men and 8 women, conducted by a neuromarketing firm – are no more robust or thoughtfully examined than the above-cited Iacobini et al. flim-flam that the New York Times previously published on politics. Mr. Lindstrom, who touts himself as both consumer advocate and branding guru but appears to have no academic credentials to warrant his interpretations of fMRI experiments.

Is nobody home at the New York Times?

Update: Tal Yarkoni has a detailed and thoughtful critique up about the Lindstrom article

Cognitive training as a bona fide therapeutic

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 series on radical enhancement

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.

Retribution

Retribution, the dictionary tells us, is the dispensing of punishment for misdeeds. Derived from the Latin re tribuere, it literally means to pay back. We humans have strong retributive instincts, and it is often said that this behaviour arose as a product of our evolution as social beings: the threat of retribution enforces social norms, and was among the features that increased the likelihood of cooperation among members of society in the early years of human evolution. Given that cooperation confers significant adaptive advantages to the group, retributive norms flourished, and whether via genes or enculturation, the desire for retribution has been passed on to us.

The value of retributive impulses in the modern world is more difficult to discern. We humans are noted for having the ability to not only act in a manner that is instinctive, but also to reflect upon the propriety of our actions. Amongst philosophers, retribution is often contrasted with consequentialism, the notion that the response to a misdeed should produce the best result for society. Consequentialism is possible because the modern human brain is able to reason, and by so doing we are able to anticipate near, medium and long-term futures: we can decide whether the best response to a misdeed is retribution, education, or even doing nothing at all. At different times, different responses may be called for. What matters most to the consequentialist is not the payback but rather the outcome. The tension between retribution and consequentialism is a hot button issue in the field of neurolaw, where neuroessentialists argue that it is time to rethink the concept of punishment, while traditionalists suggest that deterrence remains the best way of organizing civil society. Continue reading