Neuroethics

Boston, MA—Prominent neuroscientists, theologians and bioethicists gathered at MIT on Sunday for a 3 day conference, Our Brains and Us: Neuroethics, Responsibility, and the Self, sponsored by the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

To a certain extent the title of the conference seems a bit strange to those who think that our brains pretty much are “us.” Brains are the organs in which our desires, memories, hopes, plans, and character all reside. We recognize the centrality of the brain to our personhood when we consider the question: would you prefer to be the donor or the recipient of a brain transplant?

The conferees are considering such issues as: If a brain scanning technology could reliably predict that someone will commit violence, should they be subject to prior restraint, or required to take medications that would moderate that tendency? Do people who have suffered painful abuse have an obligation to retain that memory or do they have the right to blunt it? Perhaps perpetrators of violence should be required to retain the memory of their evil, while victims would be allowed to moderate their recollections?

They are also debating questions of what constitutes neural normalcy: When can outsiders legitimately intervene to correct another person’s eccentricities? Religious scholar David Hogue suggests that modern neuroscience is encouraging unjustified notions of “perfectability” and that we “run the risk of becoming gods.”

Besides these large questions, neuroscientists are displaying some of the findings of their field. Floyd Bloom from the Scripps Research Institute showed a brain scan of two players engaged in a kind of tit-for-tat game in which one player learns to trust another. The interesting aspect of the brain scan was that areas of the basal ganglia associated with feelings of reward “light up” as the player comes to trust the other player. Positive social interaction elicits the same internal reward system that food, water and sex do. Have neuroscientists identified “trust” in the brain? University of Pennsylvania brain researcher Martha Farah reviewed the latest brain scanning literature which has tried to prove the hypothesis that there is a “self module” in the brain—that is, a network of brain cells that would respond predictably when a brain considers itself and its body. Farah’s review found that current brain imaging studies could not in fact confirm such a claim. There does seem to be a module (network) devoted to identifying “persons” that helps us predict the behavior of others in terms of reasons; assumes a continuity of identity of other persons; and enables us to assign blame and punish others.

Author Andrew Solomon’s struggle with depression led him to extensive study of neuroscience research. Solomon noted that in the past psychiatrists would argue that depression caused by psychological trauma (say child abuse or surviving the Holocaust) would be better treated by psychological means, such as talk therapy, whereas depression that doesn’t seem to come from any specific incident but seems to arise from a neurochemical shift is more amenable to drug treatments. Solomon pointed out that brain researcher Eric Kandel has found that talk therapy and anti-depressant drugs induce the same set of physical changes in the brain.

On the religious front, theologian Nancey Murphy from Fuller Theological Seminary described some remarkably interesting scholarly research that suggests that the early Christians did not subscribe to the idea of an immaterial soul separate from the body. Murphy argued that the idea of an immaterial soul was smuggled in when Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek around 250 BCE. For example, the Hebrew word nefesh, which referred to the whole living person, was translated as psyche, or soul. In Hebrew thought, the concept of spirit stands the whole person in relation to God, not some separable part of a person. Murphy argued that New Testament authors were not teaching about the metaphysical condition of human beings or asking whether there is a period of conscious existence between death and bodily resurrection. “The Christian hope for eternal life is staked on bodily resurrection, not on the existence of an immaterial soul,” concluded Murphy. “Thus contemporary believers can formulate their views in conformance with science. There is no conflict between science and religion.”

Finally, David Hogue asked, “Is there anything the neuroscience will not be asked to explain? I suspect that the answer is ‘no'”. He seemed rather glum about the prospect.

To a certain extent the title of the conference seems a bit strange to those of us who think that our brains pretty much are “us.” Brains are the organs in which our desires, memories, hopes, plans, and character all reside. We recognize the centrality of the brain to our personhood when we consider the question: would you prefer to be the donor or the recipient of a brain transplant?

The conferees are considering such issues as: If a brain scanning technology could reliably predict that someone will commit violence, should they be subject to prior restraint, or required to take medications that would moderate that tendency? Do people who have suffered painful abuse have an obligation to retain that memory or do they have the right to blunt it? Perhaps perpetrators of violence should be required to retain the memory of their evil, while victims would be allowed to moderate their recollections?

They are also debating questions of what constitutes neural normalcy: When can outsiders legitimately intervene to correct another person’s eccentricities? Religious scholar David Hogue suggests that modern neuroscience is encouraging unjustified notions of “perfectability” and that we “run the risk of becoming gods.”

Besides these large questions, neuroscientists are displaying some of the findings of their field. Floyd Bloom from the Scripps Research Institute showed a brain scan of two players engaged in a kind of tit-for-tat game in which one player learns to trust another. The interesting aspect of the brain scan was that areas of the basal ganglia associated with feelings of reward “light up” as the player comes to trust the other player. Positive social interaction elicits the same internal reward system that food, water and sex do. Have neuroscientists identified “trust” in the brain? University of Pennsylvania brain researcher Martha Farah reviewed the latest brain scanning literature which has tried to prove the hypothesis that there is a “self module” in the brain—that is, a network of brain cells that would respond predictably when a brain considers itself and its body. Farah’s review found that current brain imaging studies could not in fact confirm such a claim. There does seem to be a module (network) devoted to identifying “persons” that helps us predict the behavior of others in terms of reasons; assumes a continuity of identity of other persons; and enables us to assign blame and punish others.

Author Andrew Solomon’s struggle with depression led him to extensive study of neuroscience research. Solomon noted that in the past psychiatrists would argue that depression caused by psychological trauma (say child abuse or surviving the Holocaust) would be better treated by psychological means, such as talk therapy, whereas depression that doesn’t seem to come from any specific incident but seems to arise from a neurochemical shift is more amenable to drug treatments. Solomon pointed out that brain researcher Eric Kandel has found that talk therapy and anti-depressant drugs induce the same set of physical changes in the brain.

On the religious front, theologian Nancey Murphy from Fuller Theological Seminary described some remarkably interesting scholarly research that suggests that the early Christians did not subscribe to the idea of an immaterial soul separate from the body. Murphy argued that the idea of an immaterial soul was smuggled in when Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek around 250 BCE. For example, the Hebrew word nefesh, which referred to the whole living person, was translated as psyche, or soul. In Hebrew thought, the concept of spirit stands the whole person in relation to God, not some separable part of a person. Murphy argued that New Testament authors were not teaching about the metaphysical condition of human beings or asking whether there is a period of conscious existence between death and bodily resurrection. “The Christian hope for eternal life is staked on bodily resurrection, not on the existence of an immaterial soul,” concluded Murphy. “Thus contemporary believers can formulate their views in conformance with science. There is no conflict between science and religion.”

Finally, David Hogue asked, “Is there anything the neuroscience will not be asked to explain? I suspect that the answer is ‘no'”. He seemed rather glum about the prospect.

Minds on Brains, Hobnobbing with neuroscientists and theologians, Matt Welch, April 18, 2005

 

 

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