Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Just Neurons?

Neuroessentialism is the belief that you, your mind, your identity, are essentially just your brain. It gets touted as an example of how science has triumphed, once again, over superstitions of the past - your soul hasn't died, it was just an illusion! Created by the brain. With memory, sensation, speech, and just about every other human attribute found to be located in one gyrus or another, it seems like there isn't anything left that could be outside of the brain. Francis Crick referred to this as the “astonishing hypothesis[1],” and while Stephen Pinker pointed out that for most neuroscientists this idea hardly warranted much astonishment[2], what might be more astonishing is how quickly the idea is bleeding out of the laboratory into popular media.  The basic philosophical foundations of this notion have been around for a long time (as mentioned on the [highly entertaining] podcast “very bad wizards,” we've known for a long time that when you remove the head, the mind ceases to function. Grant Gillet mentions that even Aristotle held that the mind emerges as function of the body, rather than a separate spiritual entity that somehow inhabits the body).  However, the recent attention that neuroscience has been getting (especially with the advent of fMRI, which enabled a huge number of studies on healthy, awake humans) appears to have made this an easier pill for the public at large to swallow. Dr. Peter Reiner has even gone as far to document the rise of neuroessentialism and has begun to map out the potential positive and negative effects of this cultural shift[3].

A distant relative of the brain-in-a-vat: the brain-in-a-hat.  "I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. Therefore, it is the brain I must consider." A very neuroessentialist sentiment of Sherlock Homes, in The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Image from here.

With the rise of any sort of public awareness, we should expect there to be reactionaries who warn us about going too far with our new idea and neuroessentialism is no different. Rather than defending old arguments in the face of overwhelming experimental evidence, these thinkers instead point cautiously forward and advise us to make our claims about the mind carefully, rather than jump on the neuro-bandwagon.  I'd like to display two of these recent, anti-essentialist thinkers here.  Both argue what might be considered further expansions of Clark and Chalmers' extended mind hypothesis[4]--which itself argued that pen & paper, computers, (and today, cell phones) could all be considered as vital components of cognitive processes, and thus as part of the mind.   

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Neuroethics Journal Club: Sexual Fantasies and Gender/Sex

In May of 2013, The New York Times Magazine published an article discussing the ongoing clinical trials of a unique new drug that caught the interest of Emory University neuroscience graduate student Mallory Bowers. The drug, dubbed “Lybrido”, was being tested for its ability to improve sexual desire in women.  However, Lybrido is not just a female Viagra-like formulation.  That is apparently one part of it but the other, perhaps more surprising part, is the pill’s testosterone coating that is designed to melt away immediately in the mouth. To better understand how testosterone (T) could modulate female desire, and to discuss the neuroethical implications of pharmaceutically targeting it, Ms. Bowers chose a recent paper in the Journal of Sex Research by Goldey et al. entitled “Sexual Fantasies and Gender/Sex: A Multimethod Approach with Quantitative Content Analysis and Hormonal Responses” for the second Neuroethics Journal Club of the year. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Future of Law and Neuroscience: An Interview with Owen Jones, The Director of the MacArthur Research Network on Law and Neuroscience

After watching the PBS “Brains on Trial” special that featured innovative brain imaging technologies and examined the subsequent implications for the legal field, I decided to take a deeper look at the status of current neuroscience research and the future ramifications for the emerging field of neurolaw. To that end, I interviewed Professor Owen Jones. Owen Jones currently directs the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience taking the lead in crafting a conceptual framework, which seeks to define and outline many of the legal issues surrounding recent neuroscientific findings. Jones also designed, created, and now directs the Law and Neuroscience Research Network, an unprecedented interdisciplinary effort that has called upon scholars from a myriad of areas for the purpose of examining how neuroscience can inform legal decisions in criminal contexts.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Now Available! Bias in the Academy Pre-Symposium Series Archives on YouTube

This year's Neuroethics Symposia, a partnership of Emory's Neuroscience Graduate Program, Laney Graduate School and the Emory Center for Ethics Neuroethics Program, is designed to discuss the complex influence of stereotype/bias on academia and apply advances in the science of stereotype bias to university policies and practices. Through a pre-symposia seminar series and symposia, a white paper will be produced to highlight challenges and to put forth practical solutions to move toward mitigating the detrimental influence of bias and stereotyping in academia.

The first of four pre-symposium seminars was led by neuroscience graduate student, Jacob Billings.  The video of this seminar is available below.

An Introduction to Bias: A Social Network Primer 
Jacob Billings, Neuroscience graduate student, Emory University 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Experimental Neuroethics

By Peter Reiner, VMD, PhD

Dr. Reiner is Professor in the National Core for Neuroethics, a member of the Kinsmen Laboratory of Neurological Research, Department of Psychiatry and the Brain Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, and a member of the AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board.

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.

Photo credit: Timothy Epp, Shutterstock

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.