Day 1: Neurolaw, Deception, Genetics, and a Little bit of Magic

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

– Albert Einstein.

The opening lecture of brain_musicianthe conference fell under the heading of “Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society” and was given by magicians – or rather illusionists – Eric Mead and Apollo Robbins. The Dialogues series began about 5 years ago for neuroscientists to engage with professionals outside of the neuroscience community to discuss how their work intersects with some of the work that occurs in the brain sciences. Other lecturers in years past have included esteemed individuals such as the Dalai Lama. In two separate lectures, Mead and then Robbins demonstrated how illusionists – and sophisticated pick-pocketers – use principles of psychology and deception to achieve their goals. In many ways, illusionists hijack the cognitive capacities of their targets. Indeed, this practice (in non magician-show settings) may be ethically problematic as the techniques employed make use of deception, manipulation, and the planting of false memories.

The remainder of the day was devoted to poster viewing. I was mainly interested in the viewing posters from Theme H: History, Teaching, Public Awareness, and Societal Impacts in Neuroscience. Although these posters were condemned to the back walls of the McCormick Center, I was pleased to see how many posters of this category were on display today and that SfN continues to support these important issues.

There were a few posters that particularly caught my eye, and I was able to engage in some interesting discussion with the presenters:

1. Responsibilities of Neuroscience Concerning Aggressive War and Torture – Curtis C. Bell. The poster outlined some of the familiar arguments regarding the use of neuroscience in military activities (see for instance: here and here). In particular, Bell argued that the SfN ought to take a stance and declare an opposition to “aggressive” war and torture in many ways similar to the statements made by such groups as the American Anthropological Association.

2. Neuroscience, Reason, and Emotion in Legal Decision-Making – Chris Buccafusco. Buccafusco explored the implications of affective neuroscience for the law, particularly Damasio’s Somatic Marker Hypothesis. Although his conclusions were somewhat unclear, he stated that the law ought to focus on the role of empathy in jury judgments of pain and suffering damages.

3. Beyond the Brain: Addiction as a Human Experience (This was the old title on the poster – the title was in reference to Biobanks at the Mayo Clinic) – Lefebvre, Maclean, Robinson, McCormick & Koenig. Jennifer McCormick was the presenter of the poster. The poster reported on a study that sought to explore subjects’ hopes, fears, intentions and expectations in the context of genetic research in addiction. In particular, the authors were interested in study participants conceptions of the informed consent process where they donated samples of their DNA for a biobanking project. Results of the study, interestingly enough, didn’t focus on the informed consent process – participants reported their understanding of a “disease-of-the-brain” construct of addiction and how it related to something that was “in their genes”. Thus, participants believed that a biological conception of their illness would allow for more treatments or “cures” of their condition. McCormick also reported, however, that participants perceived their addiction as “multi-faceted” and looked to psycho-social factors as other ways to explain their addiction.

Going out to hear some Chicago Blues tonight — will report tomorrow with more from SfN, including highlights from the Social Issues Roundtable.