Day 4: A Poster on the Neuroscience of Ethics

trolleyAlthough I presented my poster this morning, I’m not going to talk about it here. Rather, I’m going to briefly report and summarize an interesting poster I saw yesterday by graduate student Bradley Thomas, who is in Daniel Tranel‘s lab at the University of Iowa.

The poster was titled The Self-Other Bias in Moral Judgment is Insensitive to Ventromedial Prefrontal Damage. Thomas reported on study that aimed to examine whether the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) is crucial for creating moral judgments about both Self and Other dilemmas, whether the self-other bias of moral judgments about these dilemmas can be replicated, and whether this self-other bias is sensitive to VMPFC damage. This work comes right off the heels of some other writings in this domain, including a recent paper in Neuroethics by Thomas Nadelhoffer and Adam Feltz. Some of Tranel’s previous work with others such as Antonio Damasio and Marc Hauser support the notion that the VMPFC damage increases utilitarian judgments.

The authors recruited 3 groups for experimental study: a) neurologically ‘normals’; b) brain damage comparison; and c) adult-onset VMPC-lesions. They created a novel battery of 12 Self and 12 Other high-conflict personal moral dilemmas, based on the dilemma of the trolley problem. Typically when presented with the trolley-problem thought experiment, participants will endorse a simple utilitarian end – i.e., they will believe it is morally permissible to flip the switch (or pull the lever, depending on the version) to save 5 individuals and the trolley to run over 1 person.

Most notably among their findings was that  individuals with VMPFC damage were most likely to endorse a utilitarian outcome in both Self and Other dilemmas. Accordingly, as the title suggests, the Self-Other bias was insensitive to VMPFC lesions. Thomas and his co-authors suspected that the bias does not appear to be created by the VMPFC and other complex emotional processing. The authors hypothesize that bias in moral judgment may be due to more basic psychological processes, such as an increased aversion to causing self-harm versus another person causing that harm. I wonder, despite the VMPFC damage, if the somatic marker hypothesis may be somewhat relevant here…

I am really looking forward to seeing more work of this kind in the future.

Neuroethics Social — TONIGHT!

party_jokeHi SfN-ers,

Please see the message below from Martha Farah regarding tonight’s Neuroethics Social.

See you there!

Neuroethics Social
Chair: Martha J. Farah
Location: Room N139, convention center

Guests: J.T. Cacioppo J.D. Haynes J. Illes S. Laureys H.S. Mayberg E.A. Phelps R.A. Poldrack B.J. Sahakian

Interested in the ethical, legal or policy implications of neuroscience? Come to the neuroethics social hour and meet others with the same interests. And don’t miss the short but spirited debate, between two leading neuroimaging researchers, on the proposition that “brain imaging is already capable of (something worthy of the term) ‘mind reading’.

Thanks very much!


Day 2: Social Issues Roundtable

The Social Issues Rknights-of-the-round-tableoundtable got underway just after 1pm today, to a capacity crowd. Actually, the room was beyond capacity and people were spilling out to the periphery of the room. At the conclusion of the symposium, the line-up for Q&A was deep, and questions mainly were directed towards issue of science communication (Note: apparently the official title of the Social Issues Roundtable was “Engaging the Public on Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Neuroscience Research” but somehow I didn’t realize that). It is encouraging to see such interest. I briefly summarize presentations by Patricia Churchland, Barbara Sahakian, Jonathan Moreno, and Hank Greely below. The “roundtable” was moderated by Alan Leshner. Unfortunately the presenters were restricted to about 10 or so minutes each, so nobody could really dig deep into any of the issues.

Patricia Churchland – Muddle’s Fallacy: Responsibility Requires Cause-Free Choice

Although Churchland did not describe what Muddle’s Fallacy is (if it is anything at all), Professor Churchland’s focused her efforts by arguing that a ‘determined’ brain does not eliminate moral and legal responsibility. The problem this raises is how can both the law and society hold someone responsible for their actions if their actions are the end result in a series of pre-determined behaviours. Churchland also stated that society would likely not accept a premise that someone could not be held responsible – at least to some degree – for their actions. This argument is not new, and has been articulated since antiquity by the likes of Aristotle and David Hume, and more closer to us in elegant papers by Greene & Cohen and Adina Roskies.

Barbara Sahakian – Neuroethics and Society: Pharmacological Cognitive Enhancement

Barbara Sahakian briefly spoke to two issues during her short presentation: public engagement and cognitive enhancement. To engage the public in Neuroethics, Sahakian stated, neuroscientists from the undergraduate to graduate levels “need neuroethics teaching.” This, she claimed, will train future scientists to better communicate their research to the public. Although she didn’t say much more beyond that, Sahakian framed her argument as a matter of duty: she stated that scientists have an obligation to the public, particularly because most scientists are funded with public money. Second – and somewhat intermingled with the first but the connection was not entirely clear – Sahakian made a short case for the responsible use of cognitive enhancing drugs by healthy individuals. To see a longer discussion of this argument, see the commentary she co-authored with co-roundtabler Greely and others in Nature.

Jonathan D. Moreno – Neuroethics and National Security

Dr. Moreno probably gave the most entertaining talk of all presenters. Outlining some of the issues in his book Mind Wars, Moreno discussed the history of the brain sciences in issues surrounding (American) national security. Moreno spoke of some major actors in this history such as military psychiatrist Sidney Gottlieb and Henry K Beecher, and Beecher’s involvement with the CIA and drug experiments of the early 1950s. It was unfortunate that Moreno had limited time. His description of modern uses of neurotechnology by Defense services (e.g. Oxytocin and torture) was particularly intriguing, and stated that neuroscientists are not so far removed from the equation, as their work is consistently being used to inform major policy documents by the National Academies, such as Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies.

Hank Greely – Possible Societal Reactions to – and Rejections of – Neuroscience’s understanding of the Mind.

The main theme underlying Greely’s talk was whether or not advances in neuroscience would instigate a conflict similar to the creationist/evolution wars. To illustrate his argument he drew upon three points:

1. What is it in neuroscience that makes people nervous;

2. What are the probabilities of a “neuroscience war”; and

3. Pragmatic advice to limit the possibility of a bad outcome.

Greely’s first point, similar to Churchland’s, had much to do with moral intuitions. For instance, he discussed (the fact…?) that neuroscience does not see evidence of a soul (he made a remark – jokingly I presume – about a ‘soul spot’ in the brain), and, again, similar to the arguments made earlier by Pat Churchland, that neuroscience’s threat to free will is incredibly unsettling to most people (see some really fascinating work on folk intuitions on free will, responsibility, and determinism). Prof Greely also alluded to the uniqueness (or perhaps not as he was careful to say) of human consciousness and how that separates us from other animals (although many primates do indeed have similar brains to human beings). In discussing this, Greely referred to some recent controversies in human chimera research (e.g., the human neuron mouse) and responses to the science fueled in religious-political ideology (i.e., man was created in god’s image), including efforts by US Senator Sam Brownback and his Human Chimera Prohibition Act. Although he didn’t think the prospect of a “neuroscience war” akin to the creationism/evolution debate was likely, he gave some pragmatic advice which, it seemed, to strike an uncomfortable chord with one audience member. In his pragmatic advice, Greely stated that neuroscience researchers should not go out of their way to offend, and ought to be careful about their claims. True, while exercising caution and making efforts to limit the sensationalizing of claims is something of value, this particular audience member interpreted the latter half of the statement to mean that scientists should not venture into areas of “forbidden knowledge” with their work. I did not catch all of Greely’s remark, but it is my belief that perhaps his statement was misinterpreted. If any blog readers attended this session and caught Greely’s response, clarification would be appreciated.

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.

Neuroblogging at SfN 2009


Neuroethics at the Core has been chosen to blog (or rather, neuro-blog as they say) at this year’s meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, IL. We will be posting daily from October 17-21st about our activities, events, and experiences related to Neuroscience 2009. Kate Tairyan, Carole Federico, and myself will all be presenting neuroethics posters at SfN. If you are going to be at the meeting, please come and introduce yourself.