(Neuro)essentializing love

One of the most popular posts of all time here at Neuroethics at the Core is entitled The Science of Love by Sara Parke .  The post deals with the discomfort that Sara felt as she began to explore the  notion that love is mediated by the brain, prompted by work she did in a research lab as an undergraduate at Stanford. Even without a complete understanding of the underlying neurobiology, once one begins to ponder how love might work, most people fall into a well of despair as they realize that love, a most cherished experience, is based upon the firing of neurons and the release of chemicals. Continue reading


Neuromarketing podcast on All in the Mind

This past week, Phil Harris of the University of Melbourne, Shane Moon, Managing Director of Inner Truth, and I participated in a conference held at the Royal Institution of Australia on the subject of neuromarketing – I joined the group in Melbourne via skype. The event was hosted by science journalist Natasha Mitchell, and portions of the discussion can be found in this week’s episode of All in the Mind.

Link to download podcast of “Buying desires: Neuromarketing or neurohype?” from All in the Mind

Further coverage of the event on Natasha Mitchell’s blog

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

Objectivity in Science

I recently had the good fortune to attend the Objectivity in Science conference, this past June 17 -20, 2010 at the University of British Columbia. The question that attendees set to examine was, what is objectivity and why does it matter? The conference was part of a SSHRC-funded network called Situating Science: Science in Human Contexts which aims to connect those “engaged in the humanist and social studies of science examining the sciences in situ“. Major universities across the country have held their own Situating Science events in the past year, all relating to science and technology studies or the history of the philosophy of science.

While there were many sessions to report on — in particular plenaries by Ian Hacking and Peter Galison which I found to be quite intriguing and inspiring — I’ll speak to the first two papers (apologies to Moira Howes) delivered in Session VI: Objectivity: Norms & Trust. On the whole, these papers were speaking to the facts and values which underlie science communication to the public. Continue reading


Adbusters, the magazine for and about culture jamming, never ceases to amaze me.  But this time, the thought-provoking issue is not their content per se, but rather one of the Letters to the Editor that they published.  It is from a long-term reader named Taylor Hudson, who begins his missive with this gentle disconnection:  “With a kind smile, I’m writing to share with you why I have canceled my subscription.”  Taylor goes on to explain, in a long and very thoughtful letter, that “It’s not enough to criticize anymore.  It is exhausting, disheartening and counterproductive…  Adbusters has presented or railed around very few true solutions for fostering people’s happiness.  For therein lies the real revolution, right?  To claim the right to be happy and free?”  [Adbusters does have at least one ‘campaign’ that is intended to foster happiness: Digital Detox Week.  Regular readers will recognize its similarity to a regular rant of my own.]

I very much like the gentle manner in which Taylor Hudson made his point to Adbusters, and wish to do likewise for neuroethics. Not to disconnect, but rather to suggest that we regularly scrub our analyses of innovations in the neurosciences to be sure that they are not criticisms devoid of solutions.  It is hardly news to point out that fields such as neuroethics can slip into the realm of nagging, raising alarms about new innovations and the harm they might bring to individuals, to society, to our very way of being.  In fairness, this is a natural outcome of the kinds of issues that we deal with in the field, and probably all of us have tripped up now and again while attempting to avoid that particular pitfall.  But really, it is easy to be a critic.

The challenge in neuroethics is to distinguish ourselves from the neuro-Technophiles, for whom all change is good, and from the neuro-Luddites, for whom all change is bad.  Rather, I suggest that we strive to find a third way, using techniques of close observation to analyze ways in which advances in the neurosciences writ large are or are about to affect us all, and then offering innovative solutions to make it more likely that these wondrous, exciting and even inevitable changes in the world around us, to the extent possible, improve the human condition.

Link to Adbusters’ Magazine and their Digital Detox Week Campaign

Image Credit: Smithereensblog

Ripples in political theory

The daily bread of neuroethics is in understanding the impact of new technologies in the neurosciences upon society – new drugs that affect the brain, new ways of imaging the brain, etc.  But there are other ways in which the neurosciences affects society, and one really interesting one is that modern neuroscience is changing politics.  This is a version of the neuro meme about which I have written about before, but two items made me realize that this is happening more than I had even imagined.

The first is the implosion of the Chicago School of Economics.  Both a formal academic enterprise – its brain trust populates the economics faculty at the University of Chicago – and a school of thought, the Chicago School has had a very influential run.  The particular specialty of the Chicago School is libertarianism, the philosophy which puts individual liberty at the top of the list of important freedoms, and emphasizes that the best choices are usually made by individuals rather than by organizations, even if the latter are peopled by experts.  Among the more vocal proponents of the Chicago School has been Richard Posner, a judge who is also a prolific public intellectual: Posner has written at least 38 books, innumerable scholarly, magazine and newspaper articles, and received 11 honorary degrees, all while sitting on the US Court of Appeals (in Chicago).  Sometime after the 2008 debacle in the financial markets, Posner committed heresy: in an article in the New Republic, Posner dumped the Chicago School in its entirety, suggesting that deregulation was a root cause of the financial meltdown.  In an in-depth profile of this change of heart, John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker

“As acts of betrayal go, this was roughly akin to Johnny Damon’s shaving off his beard, forsaking the Red Sox Nation, and joining the Yankees.” Continue reading

You are not your brain scan!

Natasha Mitchell, host of the ever interesting All in the Mind series from ABC Radio, gave a talk this past July at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas entitled, “You are not your brain scan!“.  From the liner notes on the Slow TV website:

“The study of the brain has attracted extraordinary public interest in recent years, partly driven by major scientific breakthroughs in understanding the brain’s workings. To rely on brain scans, however, risks simplifying the science and equating our brain scans with destiny, much like the early years of genetics and reporting on genetics.  In this very entertaining and insightful talk at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, Natasha Mitchell of ABC Radio (All in the Mind) introduces a healthy note of sense and caution to the discourse about what we can learn from studying brain scans.”

Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere (and maybe even if you have), you will have noticed that images of brain scans have suffused popular culture of late.  Natasha takes us through the pitfalls of believing that the brain scans tell us what we so desperately want to know, and along the way gives a pretty good overview of  The Neuro Meme, as well as the ways that not only the public but scientists have become seduced by the power of the image of the living brain.   [One of my favorite lines: “It’s become a game of pin the thought on the neuron.” ]   Natasha’s main point is that scientists might be making claims beyond what is technically or conceptually reasonable, and I, for one, stand up and enthusiastically applaud her for taking the imagers to task over the veracity of their claims. One need not even invoke the infamous dead fish fMRI to know that there has been a bit of hyperbole out there.

[Postscript:  I would have liked Natasha’s presentation on its merits alone, but the fact that she pokes fun at the growth of neuro-everything, but then applauds neuroethics as one new subfield that is on the money, biased me even more.  I wonder if that is one of those brain things…]