Neuroconservationism: A Neural Pathway to Preservation
|Your brain on ocean
A Responsibility Problem
According to many scientists, the verdict is in: climate change is real and human-caused.  Fortunately, debates regarding the science of global warming have somewhat subsided and discussions regarding solutions have emerged. Needless to say, the world will continue to heat up and the oceans will continue to rise absent large-scale changes.  It has become increasingly obvious that global warming not only poses an imminent threat to the stability of our climate, but that it also represents a moral problem for our society. Policymakers and environmentalists have failed to effectively communicate the urgency of global warming in a manner that elicits action.
Unfortunately, there are barriers that discourage individuals from taking responsibility for human-induced climate change. Regardless, a strategy is desperately needed to motivate citizens to conserve. The nature of climate change makes it difficult for policymakers to encourage people to alter their lifestyles, because these changes may come with a hefty high price tag. Often, the short-term costs of acting in a more environmentally friendly way (i.e. buying environmentally friendly light bulbs, installing a solar panel on your roof, etc.) require taking on a rather large financial burden.  Therefore, policymakers may need to tap into the part of the brain that compels individuals to make different choices despite costs. Nichols seems to think he has found a way to use the brain’s fascination with water and the ocean to inspire action. More specifically, he proposes that the brain’s innate connection with the ocean could be used in tandem with neuromarketing research to potentially halt the coming ecological crisis.
Addicted to the Ocean?
Nichols has championed conservationism by proposing the idea that our brains find the ocean soothing in a uniquely spiritual way. This claim has incredible implications for how policymakers and environmentalist choose to motivate people for the purpose of conserving the Earth’s precious resources. Specifically, Nichols hopes to combine the tenets of neuromarketing and neuroscience to develop a new neuro-related field: neuroconservatism. The union of all these ideas forms quite an interesting theory. In Nichols own words, “We can use science to explore and understand the profound and ancient emotional and sensual connections that lead to deeper relationships with the ocean.”
Many believe Nichols may be on the verge of discovering something significant. For instance, he suggests there are persuasive ways that our society can incorporate the ocean’s uniquely beautiful characteristics into our narrative regarding environmental conservationism. He notes that there is something distinctive about the ocean: it has the capacity to soothe our anxieties and to calm our minds. Why not utilize these images and sounds to appeal to that isolated part of the brain for the purpose of spurring environmentalism? Many are hopeful that we can capitalize on these findings to do just that; specifically, others have mentioned that Nichols’ idea has great potential to motivate people to care about other environmental issues in a way that does not rely on complicated statistical models or confusing climate data. 
Specifically, Nichols proposes that brain scans of people ‘hooked on ocean’ could provide invaluable insight into the brain’s connection to the environment. He indicates that advertisers could use this information to influence consumers to conserve. Preliminary research has been done on neuromarketing strategies and consumer purchasing trends, but uncertainty remains. Many researchers question this techniques’ ability to read buyers’ minds for the sake of changing behavior. For instance, several neuromarketing firms like Neurosense and EmSense have popped up in the past decade with the hopes of integrating advertising principles and brain imaging results. However, despite the growth of the field, there does not seem to be strong evidence for a “buy button” in the brain. Furthermore, there is little evidence to support the claim that catering to the brain’s pleasure centers results in behavioral changes. At most, advertisers can appeal to consumers in a way that makes certain brands look more alluring, but this does not actually mean that consumers will go out and buy a product. These conclusions do not bode well for the future of neuroconservationism. How could information about the brain’s perception of the ocean encourage consumers to install a solar panel on their roof when doing so is associated with a huge financial cost? The answer is not clear. Additionally, Nichols’ blog does not indicate precisely what he thinks should be done if research were to emerge that indicated images of the ocean could stimulate action. Rather, he presents an intriguing yet slightly vague premise that could be promising but has not been substantially researched up to this point.
Say neuroscience research and neuromarketing techniques could be used to subconsciously motivate individuals to conserve. Could advertising firms spur an environmental movement? Maybe conservation groups such as Greenpeace or the Sierra Club could conduct studies to determine what images of the oceans could do to incite preservation. The results of these studies could influence how environmentalists frame advertising campaigns, commercials, or fundraising initiatives that promote conservation. Nonetheless, doing so raises a whole other set of ethical questions. If the technology were to able to point researchers to a place in the brain that triggered a humans to buy, should marketers be allowed to take advantage of such expertise? Some believe using neuromarketing would be an unethical way to coerce humans. In fact, bioethicists suggest that using brain imaging to promote certain products is an example of market distortion that should be avoided, because it does not protect the consumer. Others tend to believe that the onus is on the buyer to reject appeals to purchase certain products.
|A Picture by Jim Patterson: Water on My Mind
Ultimately, it is unknown to what extent our brain’s potential craving for the ocean can alter our society’s exploitative habits. Nichols insinuates that the manipulation of the mind may be necessary given the current ecological circumstances. Specifically, he asserts that we desperately need to connect what we know about the neurological basis for emotional to craft a strategy that lures the subconscious mind into thinking it has an obligation to preserve natural resources. For example, Coca-Cola has recently decided that they will use neuromarketing techniques to evaluate emotional reactions to their famous soda brand in the next year. Nichols could follow suit and begin using similar technology to measure emotional reactions to advertisements that incorporate aesthetically pleasing images of the ocean.
Does this strategy have the capacity to transform the way environmentalists and policymakers approach the biodiversity crisis? Should we appeal to our emotional connection with water and the ocean? More importantly, should we continue to fund projects that allow neuroscientists to do more research in this direction? Perhaps, a brief look into moral psychological research sheds an alternative perspective.
Can Emotion Motivate Action?
Thankfully, neuroscientists offer insight into some of the decision-making areas of the brain that suggest there are ways in which we can change our framing of climate change to hasten action. In particular, a study done by Joshua D. Greene and colleagues delineates between decisions made from a deontological standpoint versus a consequentialist context. Using fMRI technology, he performed an experiment that measured reaction times in certain moral situations. The dilemmas presented to the participants were variations of the classic footbridge and switch problems.  In both scenarios, one person dies in order to save five riding on a trolley. However, in the footbridge setup, the participants are asked whether or not it is morally acceptable to save the people on the trolley by pushing someone onto the tracks. In the switch problem, the participants are asked to judge whether or not it is okay to save the people on the trolley by pushing a switch that will result in the indirect death of someone down the tracks. The study yielded fascinating results: people that were evaluating switch-like problems had greater brain activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the inferior parietal lobe. On the contrary, people that judged the footbridge-like scenarios had greater brain activation in emotional areas of the brain such as the amygdala. Additionally, those who thought the footbridge scenario represented a morally sound decision had to overcome emotional impulses. Furthermore, Greene performed a later study that concluded that slower reaction times demonstrated the greater cognitive processing necessary for making a utilitarian decision in contrast to the quick, emotional processing of a deontological decision. 
|The Trolley Dilemma
How do these findings relate to say about Nichols’ work, which emphasizes emotion? Greene’s findings suggest that framing remains an incredibly important component of raising climate change to the level of a moral problem in the minds of individuals. Given the complexity of climate change, policymakers should stray away from utilizing emotional appeals to raise consciousness about an issue that is not emotionally prominent. Similarly, Marco Grasso suggests that injecting our pleas to reduce emissions with emotionally charged representations do little to activate our fear-oriented parts of the brain.  Rather, we should employ a utilitarian decision-making calculus to persuade others to engage in action to prevent climate change.
I believe findings lead us to a more provocative question: how could neuroscientists use our knowledge of the brain circuits involved in moral decision-making to encourage people to act in a more ethical manner? Emerging research seems to suggest that there is a possibility that we could morally enhance people to alter the way in which a person thinks or judges a particular situation. John R. Shook discusses the possibility of marketing a drug that could transform the way humans make moral decisions. He delves in the different scenarios in which a certain drug could be appropriate; for example, a drug could be used for “elevating devotion to a social cause” or “intensifying prejudices against despised ethnic minorities.”  Nonetheless, it does not appear out of the realm of possibility that climate change and environmental problems could fit into the former category. Theoretically, if a drug were to be developed that could effectively alter the moral parts of the brain in a way that would change the way in which humans think about the environment, the drug could also help save the planet. Clearly, the prospect of moral enhancement raises other pressing questions. For example, who would get the drug, and how will the drug be designed? Nonetheless, the potential ramifications of its development could be tremendous.
The possibility of moral enhancement and ocean-based neuromarketing seems to offer innovative mechanisms to spur environmental conservation. However, neither strategy will be able to solely combat the large environmental problems that will ensue during the 21st century. Nonetheless, we should not be resigned to passivity in the face of major challenges. Rather, neuroscience should continue to look into how we can apply images of the ocean to combat environmental problems into a marketing context to spur conservationism with the hopes of potentially altering consumer behavior. Even if researchers cannot develop a perfect tool to elicit conservationism, environmentalists, policymakers, and academics should still encourage discussions around these pressing problems. Hopefully, the third BLUEMIND conference will inspire further conversations regarding the burgeoning field of neuroconservationism.
If you want to learn more, visit this website on May 30th, 2013 to watch a live stream of the conference.
 Prothero, Donald R., “How We Know Global Warming is Real and Human Caused.” The Skeptic Magazine 17 (2012): 14-24.
 Shome, Debika and Marx, Sabine. “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication.” Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (2009). New York.
 Andrews, Candice. “Is Neuro-conservation the New Hope for Environmental Messages?” Gaiam Life (2012). Retrieved from http://blog.gaiam.com/blog/is-neuro-conservation-the-new-hope-for-environmental-messages/.
 Greene, Joshua D., et al. “An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment.” Science 14 (2001): 2105-2108.
 Greene, Joshua D., et al. “Cognition Load Selectively Interferes with Utilitarian Moral Judgment.” Cognition 107.3 (2008): 1144-1154.
 Grasso, Marco. “Climate Ethics: With a Little Help from Moral Cognitive Neuroscience.” Environmental Politics (2012): 1-17.
 Shook, John R., “Neuroethics and the Possible Types of Moral Enhancement.” AJOB Neuroscience 3 (2012): 3-14.
Want to cite this post?
Marshall, J. (2013). Neuroconservationism: A Neural Pathway to Preservation. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2013/04/neuroconservationism-neural-pathway-to.html