Finding Your Self in Neurotech

By Ankita Moss

Image courtesy of Pixabay
I interviewed Dr. Emily Postan, an Early Career Fellow in Bioethics at the University of Edinburgh School of Law, about her perspective on identity, managing neuroinformation, and how the two intersect. We spoke about whether certain kinds of neuroscience research and technologies could one day archetype and define individual identity. Our conversation began by contemplating the very framework of identity and how neuroscience is related to defining identity.

What is neuro-information's role in defining the self?

The commonly held idea is that, if you suggest that neuroinformation (or indeed genetic information or another kind of bio-information) is relevant to someone’s identity, then you must necessarily be making the claim that our identities are somehow at root essentially biologically defined or that we are our brains. But, these kinds of information are tools we can use to tell stories – ‘identity narratives’ – about who we are as embodied beings. Neuroinformation can provide tools that may be useful to a greater or lesser extent, but it is not just a mirror of the self.

But this means that neuroinformation also needs to be ‘the right kind’ of tool if it is to help us construct identity narratives that we can comfortably inhabit. What might not count as the right kind of tool is information derived from poorly designed algorithms, very vague predictive information, or diagnostic or predictive findings with high levels of false positives and negatives. Ultimately, we need quality control over bioinformation if it is going to make valuable contributions to our identity narratives.

What cultural and political conflicts do you see occurring when trying to define the self (the self may be different to different cultures)?

I have to say, with some humility, that this concept of ‘narrative identity’, in which we are the authors of our own identities (and can use various kinds of bioinformation in constructing these narratives) may well be quite a culturally-specific idea. It's probably quite a 20th and 21st century Western liberal conception of the self. Although the models we propose in analytical philosophy purport to have universal application, it may well be true that only some of us are fortunate enough to have the luxury of time and leisure to be able to play a large role in creating who we are.

But it’s true for all of us that we're, perhaps to a great extent, only the co-authors of our identities –so we're not isolated individuals. We're embedded in our communities. We live in and through our bodies. We are not free to define ourselves in all ways because we're embodied and socially bound together with others.

What are some parameters of consent that you see for gleaning neuroinformation from an individual, and do these differ from bioethical parameters of consent?

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
I think we're recognizing more and more with the use of secondary uses of data, that consent is a paradigm that came from clinical care and smaller scale clinical research – and, as such, it has been stretched to its absolute limit and is currently becoming less applicable for many current applications and technologies. One-off consent procedures become less suitable when it is very difficult to honestly predict the uses to which information will be put or what kind of findings might be generated. This is because of the sizes of the data sets and the use and reuse by subsequent analysts for different purposes.

For example, the idea that when whatever consent you give upon first signing up for your first Facebook profile is then adequate to cover everything the company then might do with your data illustrates this problem.

I think neuroethicists (and bioethicists more widely) are increasingly arguing that consent is too small a tool for many of the tasks we ask it to do. We’re also going to have to think more about really robust ethical governance frameworks and ethical training of professionals, including developers and engineers. Ethical training and respect for the sources and subjects of this information are integral to all these processes. This is due to the fact that it will not always be an option to inform participants every time a new use of their data occurs. Consent will still play an important role. One-off up-front consent is just becoming too limited a tool to tackle many of the ethical issues that are arising.

How do you see wearables influencing identity?

I see them potentially impacting the concept of the self, possibly in the near future, because of users' reactions to the apparently objective and authoritative information they purport to supply about our own bodies. However, a bit of skepticism is probably warranted about the power of existing wearables to provide truly new insights, because it seems like often they're just providing users with quantitative representations of information that we sort of already know.

We already know how active we are or whether we had a good night's sleep. It doesn't feel like it's giving us a new dimension with which to describe ourselves or define ourselves in the way that, for example, the genome revolution did. I'm a bit skeptical about whether the current generation of wearables (the Fitbit type wearables) are really going to give us new dimensions of self-description and meaning. However, as this data becomes richer, the potential for it to provide – or to be perceived as providing, which may be just as important – tools for understanding who we are may very well increase.


Throughout our conversation, Dr. Postan and I contemplated how neuro-information defines the self and how aggregation of neural data could one day redefine consent parameters.

Neuroinformation, even indirect information on platforms like social media or data from wearable technology, is much more telling about individual identity than measures such as one’s choice of clothing or political affiliation, for example. Neuroinformation in particular has the potential to archetype an individual based on information more closely related to the brain, often associated with one’s decisions, personality, and identity. Significantly redefining and filling in narratives for individuals based on neuroinformation may very well be a part of the near future.


Curious to read more about (i) narrative identity in bioethics and (ii) identity issues raised by neurotechnologies and wearables?
  • DeGrazia, D. (2005). Human identity and bioethics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Lupton, D. (2013). Quantifying the body: monitoring and measuring health in the age of mHealth technologies. Critical Public Health, 23(4), 393-403
  • Postan, E. (2016). Defining Ourselves: Personal Bioinformation as a Tool of Narrative Self-Conception. Journal of bioethical inquiry, 13(1), 133-151.
  • Walker, M. J. (2012). Neuroscience, self-understanding, and narrative truth. AJOB Neuroscience, 3(4), 63-74.
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Ankita Moss is an undergraduate student at Emory University majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology. Ankita has had a strong interest in neuroethics since high-school and hopes to contribute to the field professionally in the future. Aside from neuroscience and neuroethics, she is also very passionate about start-ups and entrepreneurship and founded the Catalyst biotechnology think-tank at Emory Entrepreneurship and Venture Management. Therefore, Ankita hopes to one day specifically navigate the ethical implications of neurotechnology startups and their impact on issues of identity and personhood.


References
  1. DeGrazia, D. (2005). Human identity and bioethics. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Lupton, D. (2013). Quantifying the body: monitoring and measuring health in the age of mHealth technologies. Critical Public Health, 23(4), 393-403. 
  3. Postan, E. (2016). Defining Ourselves: Personal Bioinformation as a Tool of Narrative Self-Conception. Journal of bioethical inquiry13(1), 133-151.
  4. Walker, M. J. (2012). Neuroscience, self-understanding, and narrative truth. AJOB Neuroscience3(4), 63-74.

Want to cite this post?

Moss, A. (2019). Finding Your Self in Neurotech. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2019/08/finding-your-self-in-neurotech.html

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