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


Fine granularity on the neuroscience of free will volition

There is a new paper in Neuron in which the authors have reprised a version of Libet’s famous experiments on volition, only the dependent measure is the activity of individual neurons in the medial frontal cortex.  The recordings were obtained in the course of surgery for intractable epilepsy, and there will be much discussion of the details in the days and weeks to come, but some of the most salient observations come from the accompanying commentary by Patrick Haggard:

… the single-neuron data provide a reassuring confirmation of previous studies that recorded neural populations. A relatively small subset of medial frontal neurons showed a gradual ramp-like increase in firing rate before movement that recalls both EEG readiness potentials and recordings prior to memory-guided actions in trained monkeys. The time of conscious intention could be predicted from small subpopulations of these neurons, using an integrate-and-fire model, well before the time that participants reported the experience of volition. Of course, the time of conscious intention is closely linked to the time of action itself, so it is difficult to separate the relation between medial frontal activity and conscious intention from the relation between medial frontal activity and voluntary action.

The novelty of this study, however, lies in the fine grain of detail that it gives about the mechanisms of volitional action. This knowledge fills important gaps that are intrinsic to methods used previously: EEG recordings in humans lacked spatial precision, neuroimaging studies lacked fine temporal precision, and single-unit recording studies in animals lacked any conscious dimension.

This study will not put the remaining controversy over free will to rest, especially since it relies upon respondents to indicate when they made the decision to move their fingers, exactly as Libet did in his infamous experiments nearly 30 years ago. But the level of analysis is precisely the one that serious neuroscientists have always wanted, and the results are about as satisfying as one can imagine (and reinforce all of the existing concerns about what, exactly, fMRI reveals).  Moreover, if there is any doubt that our brains can conjure up images of all sorts of ‘vital essences’ where there are none, I invite you to watch the video below of Theo Jansen’s Kinetic Sculpture. Brilliant.

Link to the paper in Neuron by Fried et al.

Link to the commentary by Haggerty

Hat Tip to James Fallows for the link to Theo Jansen’s sculpture.

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].

Continue reading

Neuroscience, Free Will, and Selfhood – a National Core for Neuroethics Journal Club

In keeping with our new endeavor to summarize and present the Core’s (usually) weekly journal club discussions, here is the abstract of Kaposy, “Will Neuroscientific Discoveries about Free Will and Selfhood Change our Ethical Practices?” from Neuroethics (2009).

Over the past few years, a number of authors in the new field of neuroethics have claimed that there is an ethical challenge presented by the likelihood that the findings of neuroscience will undermine many common assumptions about human agency and selfhood. These authors claim that neuroscience shows that human agents have no free will, and that our sense of being a “self” is an illusory construction of our brains. Furthermore, some commentators predict that our ethical practices of assigning moral blame, or of recognizing others as persons rather than as objects, will change as a result of neuroscientific discoveries that debunk free will and the concept of the self. I contest suggestions that neuroscience’s conclusions about the illusory nature of free will and the self will cause significant change in our practices. I argue that we have self-interested reasons to resist allowing neuroscience to determine core beliefs about ourselves.

Will neuroscience find itself in the predicament of Cassandra?

An additional catalyst for conversation was a very similar paper by Roskies, “Neuroscientific Challenges to Free Will and Responsibility” from Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2006), whose abstract is as follows:

Recent developments in neuroscience raise the worry that understanding how brains cause behavior will undermine our views about free will and, consequently, about moral responsibility. The potential ethical consequences of such a result are sweeping. I provide three reasons to think that these worries seemingly inspired by neuroscience are misplaced. First, problems for common-sense notions of freedom exist independently of neuroscientific advances. Second, neuroscience is not in a position to undermine our intuitive notions. Third, recent empirical studies suggest that even if people do misconstrue neuroscientific results as relevant to our notion of freedom, our judgments of moral responsibility will remain largely unaffected. These considerations suggest that neuroethical concerns about challenges to our conception of freedom are misguided.

Our participants often bring in relevant quotes from other sources. In this case, one contentious feature of the article was Kaposy’s rather unfavorable forecast regarding the extent to which neuroscientific perspectives will impact humanity’s self-understanding – that “our social norms are stronger determinants of what we believe than any esoteric field of science.” A passage from Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate suggests that Messrs. Newton, Darwin, and Mendel, among others, would appreciate a brief word with Kaposy:

Newton’s theory that a single set of laws governed the motions of all objects in the universe was the first event in one of the great developments of human understanding: the unification of knowledge, which the biologist E. O. Wilson has termed consilience. Newton’s breaching of the wall between the celestial and the terrestrial was followed by a collapse of the once equally firm (and now equally forgotten) wall between the creative past and the static present. That happened when Charles Lyell showed that the earth was sculpted in the past by forces we see today (such as earthquakes and erosion) acting over immense spans of time.

The living and the nonliving, too, no longer occupy different realms. In 1628 William Harvey showed that the human body is a machine that runs by hydraulics and other mechanical principles. In 1828 Friedrich Wohler showed that the stuff of life is not a magical, pulsating gel but ordinary compounds following the laws of chemistry. Charles Darwin showed how the astonishing diversity of life and its ubiquitous signs of design could arise from the physical process of natural selection among replicators. Gregor Mendel, and then James Watson and Francis Crick, showed how replication itself could be understood in physical terms.

The unification of our understanding of life with our understanding of matter and energy was the greatest scientific achievement of the second half of the twentieth century. One of its many consequences was to pull the rug out from under social scientists like Kroeber and Lowie who had invoked the “sound scientific method” of placing the living and the nonliving in parallel universes …

This leaves one wall standing in the landscape of knowledge, the one that twentieth-century social scientists guarded so jealously. It divides matter from mind, the material from the spiritual, the physical from the mental, biology from culture, nature from society, and the sciences from the social sciences, humanities, and arts. … this wall, too, is falling.

When considered in these terms, the potential impact of advancing knowledge in neuroscience may indeed appear more impressive. Of course, how can we know for sure until after the fact? Presumably we cannot; as one journal clubber observed, Kaposy may be right to challenge the future-tense, indicative-mood certainty of, e.g., Tancredi (2005) or Greene and Cohen (2004), but this does not justify his own certainty to the contrary; many of Kaposy’s predictions are as stark as those he takes to task.

Further discussion focused on Kaposy’s discussion and subsequent (largely implicit) dismissal of cognitive polyphasia as an explicitly adopted method for simultaneously entertaining the otherwise conflicting perspectives of neuroscience and pre-theoretic human understanding. Opinion was mixed; some identified the tactic as precisely what they have employed all along to get by as both scientists and human beings, or characterized the idea – which consists of holding contradictory ideas in different contexts, essentially maintaining multiple ‘belief-boxes’ for different cognitive applications – as a “clean-burning alternative” to more exclusivity-oriented views of scientific truth versus phenomenological truth.  Others worried that a move toward cognitive polyphasia dispenses too easily with a basic standard for consistency of belief. Moreover, it was suggested that polyphasia may well turn out to be impossible to maintain for such deep beliefs as free will and selfhood, especially if we try to begin thinking of dearly valued relationships – especially familial ones – as “robotic” in some sense.

To editorialize briefly, I had a problem with Kaposy’s defense of compatibilism on logical grounds. If, as we all seem to agree the case is alleged to be, neuroscience has placed both the notions of free well and a deep self under conceptual fire, then we cannot leave one out in the open while defending the other. But the author, in explaining compatibilism, uses language that is completely rife with I, me, and my. Essentially, the intelligibility of compatibilism in this case is parasitic on a notion of selfhood which in turn is indicted by the very perspective that compatibilism is trying to placate. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve been on a big Quine kick all week, and the general form of the critique is straight out of Two Dogmas.) This does not necessarily make compatibilism a circular concept, but unless Kaposy is able to shore up selfhood without making some appeal to free will, his compatibilist option makes for a poor argumentative strategy.

As always, we invite commentary and discussion from our readers.