Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What is uniquely human? A report from The Social Brain Conference

Photo credit: Anders Gade
By James Burkett

James Burkett is a 2014 recipient of the Emory Center for Ethics Neuroethics Travel Award. He is a graduate student in Emory's Neuroscience program, conducting research on social attachment and empathy in Dr. Larry Young's lab.


This October 5th thru the 8th I had the pleasure of attending the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies’ (FENS) bi-annual Brain Conference, held in Copenhagen, Denmark. FENS represents the neuroscience societies of 42 different societies in 32 countries, and is the primary organization for neuroscience in Europe. The conference, titled “The Social Brain,” focused on how the brain produces and is affected by social behaviors in humans and in animals. Chaired by eminent scientists Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (Director of the University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience), Frans de Waal (world-famous primatologist at Emory University), and Giacomo Rizzolatti (discoverer of mirror neurons at University of Parma, Italy), the conference brought together a wide array of human and animal researchers at the top of their fields. Throughout the conference, this bipolar grouping was frequently brought to the same question: what is it that makes humans different from animals? What is uniquely human? As with a sculpture, this conference seemed to answer this question by chipping away at the monolith of things commonly thought of as unique to the human species.

For a long time, humans were thought to be unique for their tool use [1,2]. However, many surprising examples of tool use have now been seen in animals. Chimpanzees are now known to fashion weapons for use in hunting, as well as using tools for nut cracking and termite retrieval; and will sometimes be seen carrying favorite tools for great distances [1]. Even this behavior is not unique to apes, however: Caledonian crows also craft and use tools for grub retrieval, and even have local tool-making traditions they pass on to the next generation [2]. There are now many internet videos showing crows solving extremely complex tasks with available tools.

Several speakers showed that the human species is not unique in its ability to cooperate and to understand cooperative relationships [1,3,4]. Chimpanzees, for instance, are perfectly capable of learning cooperative tasks without training, and even spontaneously develop individual styles, preferred partners, reputations, and feedback between partners on their choices [1]. They may do this through the use of specialized “mirror neurons,” which are present in motor planning and emotional areas of the brain and fire both when an action or emotion is being experienced, and when it is being observed in others [3,4]. These mirror neurons were first discovered in Rhesus macaques, but have since been found in humans and chimpanzees. Elephants readily learn cooperative tasks as well, even waiting for their partner to arrive when a task is presented that cannot successfully be performed alone [1]. Even more distant from humans was a striking example of inter-species cooperative hunting between groupers and moray eels, where groupers show signs of shared intentionality and referential gesturing in order to get moray eels to help them catch fish [5]. Tiny 5 gram cleaner wrasses, which have more than 2,000 inter-species social interactions a day while cleaning parasites off of other fish, show signs of cooperative strategies, individual recognition, social prestige, audience effects, tactical deception and reconciliation.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Burden of proof: does neuroscience have the upper hand?

As an undergraduate, I took several introductory level philosophy classes while majoring in neuroscience. Some of it I could appreciate and most of it went over my head, but a thought that kept nagging me was, “haven’t neuroscientists solved all of these issues by now?” It was only after I had worked in neuroscience laboratories for a few years that I began to realize just how qualified all of our statements had to be due to the plethora of limitations that go along with any result. I began to wince anytime I heard someone use the word “proof” (only salesmen use the term “clinically proven”, but don’t get me started on that…). It seems clear to me now that, for the most part, natural scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars are really all working toward the same goal just in different, albeit complimentary ways. At the first “Neuroscience, ethics and the news” journal club of the semester, Lindsey Grubbs, a PhD student in Emory University’s English Department, facilitated our discussion about a topic that she has previously written about for this site. The main focus was on what role neuroscience can and should play in answering questions that have long been in the realm of the humanities and how these results should be communicated to the general public.

From the Daily Mail Online

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ambivalence in the Cognitive Enhancement Debate

By Neil Levy, PhD

Neil Levy is the Deputy Director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, Head of Neuroethics at Florey Neuroscience Institutes, University of Melbourne, and a member of the AJOB Neuroscience Editorial Board. His research examines moral responsibility and free will.

The most hotly debated topic in neuroethics surely concerns the ethics of cognitive enhancement. Is it permissible, or advisable, for human beings already functioning within the normal range to further enhance their capacities? Some people see in the prospect of enhancing ourselves the exciting prospect of becoming more than human; others see it as threatening our humanity so that we become something less than we were.

In an insightful article, Erik Parens (2005) has argued that truthfully we are all on both sides of this debate. We are at once attracted and repulsed by the prospect that we might become something more than we already are. Parens thinks both frameworks are deeply rooted in Western culture and history; perhaps they are universal themes. We are deeply attached to a gratitude framework and to a more Promeathean framework. Hence we find ourselves torn with regard to self-transformation.

When someone feels torn in this kind of way about how they should think about or respond to something, they are ambivalent. Parens thinks that ambivalence is in fact the right response to cognitive enhancement: we ought to recognize that we are torn in both directions and acknowledge and respect this fact. We should not seek to resolve the ambivalence; we ought to embrace it. While I think that Parens highlights something of great importance when he argues that we are torn, I think he is wrong that we ought to attempt to respect both frameworks.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Can neuroscience discuss religion?

In a previous post, Kim Lang presented the views of several prominent neuroscientists and neurologists on spirituality and religion. With the knowledge that atheism is prevalent in the scientific community, she wondered how is it that some neuroscientists are nevertheless able to integrate their religious and scientific beliefs. One of the neuroscientists whose standpoint she surveyed was Michael Graziano, a Professor of Neuroscience at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute. Dr. Graziano believes that current research on the neurological basis of consciousness proves that spirituality is not only a natural tendency of humans, but also that its foundations are visible in the very structure of the brain [1].

Several questions arise from Dr. Graziano’s statement, and I will try to shed some light on each.

To start with, is neurotheology actually studying spirituality, religion, or both? What is the difference between the two? The conceptual separation between the two terms is definitely blurred. In this interview for Big Think, American Buddhist writer and academic Robert Thurman says that spirituality is “love and compassion”, is “going into a deeper area of your mind where you are asserting your free will”, where “you let go of your self-protective and defensive controls, and what you tap into is the nature of the universe, the flow of energy interconnecting things”. In contrast, Thurman believes religion is built upon spirituality, but has taken a secondary role as a tool of social and state organizations. Rituals and rules specific to each religion end up regulating the access to the spiritual, and become, in Thurman’s words, a control rather than a regulating mechanism. Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, who has recently authored a book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, seems to have similar views on the issue. He explains:

"Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating religion from spirituality is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit."

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Neuroethics and the Emory Tibet Science Initiative

I recently interviewed fellow Neuroethics Blog contributors Dr. Julia Haas and Dr. Gillian Hue about courses they taught during the summer at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in South India as part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI). Julia (who is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology Program at Washington University) taught philosophy of science at Drepung Loseling Monastery in Karnataka, and Gillian (who is the senior program coordinator for the Emory University Initiative to Maximize Student Development, program associate in the Emory Neuroethics Program, and the Managing Editor for AJOB Neuroscience) taught neuroscience at the Sera Jey Monastery in Bylakuppe.

A neuroscience class at Sera Jey Monastery (Photo credit: Gillian Hue)

The ETSI (part of the Emory-Tibet Partnership) works to introduce science programs into the education of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. Julia explained that “for the past six years they had a pilot program in the north of India [in Dharamsala], and now it is gradually being rolled out as part of the curriculum for some of the higher monastic degrees.” Such degrees are offered at Drepung Loseling and Sera Jey, which function as monastic universities.