Neuroethics: Anticipating the Future

Over the last decade, there have been unparalleled advances in our understanding of brain sciences. But with the development of tools that can manipulate brain function, there are pressing ethical implications to this newfound knowledge of how the brain works. In Neuroethics: Anticipating the Future, a distinguished group of contributors tackle current and critical ethical questions and offer forward-looking insights.

What new balances should be struck between diagnosis and prediction, or invasive and non-invasive interventions, given the rapid advances in neuroscience? Are new criteria needed for the clinical definition of death for those eligible for organ donation? As data from emerging technologies are made available on public databases, what frameworks will maximize benefits while ensuring privacy of health information? These challenging questions, along with numerous other neuroethical concerns, are discussed in depth.

Written by eminent scholars from diverse disciplines including neurology and neuroscience, ethics and law, public health and philosophy, this new volume on neuroethics sets out the many necessary considerations for the future. It is essential reading for the field of neuroethics, neurosciences and psychology, and an invaluable resource for physicians in neurological medicine, academics in humanities and law, and health policy makers.

Neuroethics: Anticipating the Future is now available. Get your copy now!


Experimental Neuroethics


Photo credit: Timothy Epp, Shutterstock

Four years ago, Neil Levy gave the concluding lecture at the first Brain Matters conference in Halifax. He alerted the audience of neuroethicists to the fact that the field of philosophy was undergoing a revolution – rather than muse from their armchairs in the ivory tower, a group of renegade philosophers were carrying out real experiments, asking people what their intuitions were about central issues in philosophy. Dubbed experimental philosophy, the new initiative was met with more than passing resistance from traditional philosophers. The apostate experimental philosophers responded by developing a logo of a burning armchair.

The landmark experiment was carried out by Josh Knobe, and its findings subsequently became known as the Knobe effect (you can watch a great recreation of the phenomenon in this YouTube video). Essentially, what Josh did was repurpose an old method from social psychology called the contrastive vignette technique (CVT) [1]. At its simplest, the CVT involves designing a pair of vignettes that carefully describe a particular situation (in the case of experimental philosophy, one that is often morally charged) but crucially differ in one detail, hence the term contrastive. Respondents see one and only one version of the vignette, and are then asked questions about what they have just read, with responses commonly recorded as a numerical rating on a Likert scale. By comparing the averaged responses between separate groups of people who have read the vignettes, the experimenter can systematically investigate the effects of small changes (of which the respondents are entirely unaware) upon attitudes towards nearly any topic. The experimental philosophers tend to use the technique to explore the meaning of concepts. Neil Levy pointed out that this same approach could, in principle, be applied to the full range of issues in neuroethics.

Neil’s presentation struck me like a thunderbolt. I had come to the field of neuroethics with a background in cellular and molecular biology, and had spent much of my career as a card-carrying reductionist: as a graduate student in the 1980’s, I championing the then-novel technique of recording from single neurons in freely moving animals, and as a postdoc I moved on to the better controlled (if less naturalistic) technique of patch clamp analysis of identified neurons in slices of brains. My subsequent rise through the ranks of academia was one in which I applied quantitative rigor to every question that I asked, and in the circles in which I traveled, this was lauded as the ultimate way to provide reproducible (and by inference, meaningful) results. I saw at once that the CVT opened the door towards doing something similar in the field of neuroethics.

My research group at the National Core for Neuroethics has embraced the use of contrastive vignettes wholeheartedly, and with a nod to the experimental philosophy camp, we call the approach Experimental Neuroethics. The team is applying the technique to a range of issues in contemporary neuroethics, probably best exemplified by our recent publications exploring public attitudes towards cognitive enhancement [2] as well as the acceptability of overt and covert nudges [3].

If the vignettes appear simple, I can assure you that properly crafting them is hard work. We begin with a carefully considered hypothesis and regularly find that the hypothesis morphs substantially (usually into something much more insightful) as the process unfolds. We then compose two or more contrastive vignettes, working hard to have the vignettes as minimally contrastive as possible (one word differences between vignettes is the ultimate goal, but this is often not feasible). Finally, we develop questions; we like to have the wording of the questions always be identical irrespective of the contrastive nature of the vignette.

Then the real fun begins. After a day or two, we assemble as a team and attack our previous work. Inevitably, we find it wanting in some respect. Sometimes, embarrassingly so. We find it best to begin by asking whether the vignette and the questions directly address the hypothesis. Sometimes that means that the hypothesis changes. Nearly always, that means that the vignette changes. This process is repeated again and again, over days and weeks and sometimes months (yes, and even sometimes years!) until we have a set of vignettes that get to the heart of the matter.

At some point late in the process we carry out cognitive pre-testing. This involves sharing the vignette and the questions with someone who has no particular expert knowledge (friends of friends are likely culprits), and debriefing them about what they read. We are sometimes amazed to find that what we intended for people to glean from a vignette is at odds with their reading of the vignette. That sends us back to the drawing board.

We also run some metrics to determine whether the words we have used are understandable by a general audience. We use online readability tests such as this one to establish the educational level required for understanding the vignette; our goal is that no more than a high school education is required. Finally, we launch the survey, recruiting respondents from amongst the thousands of people who have signed up on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – they’re more representative of the real population and aren’t as blatantly WEIRD as typical undergraduate samples. And then we hold our breath.

Once the data is analyzed, we get mired once again in deep discussion. For it is not just the quantitative aspect of Experimental Neuroethics that it satisfying (to me), but also that the data gives us an entirely new benchmark for engaging in the process of wide reflective equilibrium. Throughout this process we remain aware that an ought can not derive from is, but having the data at hand, our version of ought is very much informed by the is. Ultimately, our data emerge in concert with our normative insights, and then one more advantage of Experimental Neuroethics is realized: it is easy for others to replicate our experiments, or even to improve them by taking our vignettes and modifying them to further test their own. This iterative process of replication, critique, and systematic modification has proven to be a robust strategy for advancing insights into the nature of biological and physical phenomena. Only time will tell whether Experimental Neuroethics catches fire in our discipline as it has in the field of philosophy (where it remains controversial). If it does, we can trace it back to Neil’s presentation in Halifax….

[Cross posted at the Neuroethics Blog]

[1] Burstin K, Doughtie E, Raphaeli A. Contrastive Vignette Technique: An indirect Methodology Designed to Address Reactive Social Attitude Measurement1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 1980;10(2):147–65.

[2] Fitz NS, Nadler R, Manogaran P, Chong EWJ, Reiner PB. Public attitudes toward cognitive enhancement. Neuroethics. 2013 doi: 10.1007/s12152-013-9190-z.

[3] Felsen G, Castelo N, Reiner PB. Decisional enhancement and autonomy: public attitudes towards overt and covert nudges. Judgment and Decision Making. 2013;8(3):202–13.

Call for Papers: International Neuroethics Conference “Neuroenhancement”

 University of Mainz, Germany

July 7-9, 2011

This conference on Neuroenhancement will be the final conference of the Canadian-German research project “Normality, Normalization and Enhancement in the Neurosciences: Ethical, Sociocultural and Neuropsychiatric Aspects of Cognitive Enhancement”.  The aim of the conference is to provide a forum for the interdisciplinary discussion of medical, ethical, social and legal aspects of neuroenhancement. In addition, during the conference, the results of the research project “Normality, Normalization and Enhancement in the Neurosciences” will be presented. Continue reading

Techno-enthusiasts and techno-phobes

The December edition of the Atlantic Monthly has a very interesting article about Freeman Dyson’s famously skeptical view of climate change – he has come out forcefully suggesting that it is just not something we should worry about.  For those who don’t know, Dyson is a brilliant physicist who has spent much of his career at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, and has been both a practicing scientist as well as one who shares his insights on a regular basis with the general public – in 1996 winning the Lewis Thomas Prize for writing about science.  The author of the article, who has known Dyson for many years, ponders the question of how someone so brilliant could be in such profound disagreement with the rest of the scientific community?

The interesting part of the answer for me was this: that Dyson has an unfailing confidence in the redemptive power of technology.  I think that this attitude is at the heart of the many of the debates in neuroethics – are we enthusiastic about the potential advantages that a particular technological development (be it drug, device, or something else) may provide, or are we skeptical, referring again and again to the precautionary principle as our guiding light?

Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine and hardly a technophobe writes,

“The idea of progress has been slowly dying. I think progress lost its allure at the ignition of the first atom bomb at the end of WWII. It has been losing luster since. Even more recently the future has become boring and unfashionable. No one wants to live in the future. The jet packs don’t work, and the Daily Me is full of spam. No one finds the Future attractive any longer.” Continue reading

Dr. Adrian Carter to Speak on Addiction Neuroethics | UBC Nov. 9, 2010

The National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia is proud to present Dr. Adrian Carter, NHMRC Postdoctoral Fellow from the University of Queensland, for a talk entitled, “Should We Trial Deep Brain Stimulation for Addiction? The Case for Caution” on Tuesday, November 9th, 2010 at 11:00am. The talk will take place in the University’s Brain Research Centre Conference Room. All are welcome. Please see below.


Should We Trial Deep Brain Stimulation for Addiction? The Case for Caution.

Adrian Carter, PhD
NHMRC Postdoctoral Fellow
The University of Queensland

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010
11:00am – 12:00pm

The UBC Brain Research Centre Conference Room
2211 Wesbrook Mall | UBC Hospital | Koerner Pavilion
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Abstract: Deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been proposed as a potential treatment of drug addiction on the basis of its effects on drug self-administration in animals and on addictive behaviours in some humans treated with DBS for other psychiatric or neurological conditions. dbs is seen as a more reversible intervention than ablative neurosurgery but it is nonetheless a treatment that carries significant risks. I will review preclinical and clinical evidence for the use of DBS to treat addiction to determine whether its use is currently warranted, making the case for caution. Severely addicted persons who try and fail to achieve abstinence may, however, be desperate enough to undergo such an invasive treatment if they believe that it will cure their addiction. History shows that the desperation for a “cure” of addiction can lead to the use of risky medical procedures before they have been rigorously tested. In the event that DBS is used in the treatment of addiction, I will examine the minimum ethical requirements for conducting such a trial.

About the speaker: Dr. Carter is an NHMRC Postdoctoral Fellow in Public Health at UQ. He is particularly interested in the impact that neuroscience has upon notions of autonomy and responsibility in addiction, the use of coercion and the capacity to consent in addiction treatment, as well as the use of novel neurological technologies to treat, and possibly, prevent addiction. Dr. Carter has published numerous articles on these issues, as well as reports for the who, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, and the Australian Ministerial Council on Drugs Strategy.

National Core for Neuroethics

UBC Brain Research Centre

Dr. Carter’s academic bio

Conference Announcement: Brain Matters II

Just received the following announcement from Dr. Barbara Russell, bioethicist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and coordinator of the Canadian Bioethics Society Neuroethics Interest group.  It has just been announced that the Brain Matters neuroethics conference will be held in Montreal in the spring of 2011. The theme of Brain Matters II appears to have a clinical ethics focus. The first Brain Matters conference occurred September 2009 in Halifax, Nova Scotia and was a great success. Looking forward to the call for abstracts and seeing who the organizers secure for the plenaries.


BRAIN MATTERS II: Ethics in the Translation of Neuroscience Research to Psychiatric and Neurological Care

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

May 26-27 2011

Call for abstracts forthcoming. For more information, please contact:


Peter Reiner and I wrote a post on our reflections of the first Brain Matters conference: Brain Matters

Brain Matters: New Directions in Neuroethics from Dalhousie’s Novel Tech Ethics website.

IRCM Neuroethics Research Unit

Payday loans

We will begin with a little experiment in behavioural economics. Which would you prefer – receiving $100 today or $200 one year from now?  If you are like most people, you would take the $100 today. Once you stop to think about it, the decision to take the $100 today is really quite silly, as you would receive 100% more money in one year’s time, and unless you are a very savvy investor, there are few opportunities to make that kind of return.  But we humans consistently choose the $100 today, a phenomenon which goes by the cumbersome name of hyperbolic temporal discounting. Made famous by George Ainslie who carried out his groundbreaking work in pigeons, temporal discounting is everywhere around us but we rarely take note. Moreover, temporal discounting applies not only when we think about getting money, but even more insidiously, the same thing happens when we are borrowing money.

The arena of modern life in which temporal discounting plays out with perhaps its most disastrous consequences is the spectacle of payday loans. The idea behind payday loans is simple: the loans are short-term (usually one to two weeks) and allow people to get an advance on their paycheck. Typical rates are $15 for a two-week advance of $100, which seems reasonable when you are hungry. Or need a roof over your head. But if you do the math, the numbers turn out to be terrible. The nominal annual percentage rate or APR is a whopping 390% (15% x 26). That is what you will be charged if you payback your loan on time. In order to get around usury laws, payday lenders generally require you to completely payback your loan at the end of the loan period, in this case two weeks.  What happens if you don’t have the cash? Well, your friendly payday lender will be happy to advance you another loan to cover your losses, again at the rate of 15% for two weeks. As you can imagine, by the time payday comes around, many people are again in trouble, and have no choice but to take out another loan. If you continued doing this for an entire year, you would now be paying 3,685%, which is called the effective annual rate. Sound confusing?  It is. And unless you have a mind that pays more attention to figures than desires, you will completely ignore the interest rates, nominal, effective, or whatever, and just go for the cash. Today. In your pocket.

It does not take a great deal of experience in the field of neuroethics to recognize the issue here. The payday industry capitalizes upon a very common mental trap – temporal discounting – to allow charging rates of interest that are, without invoking too much hyperbole, outrageous. Continue reading