Neuroethics Annual Meeting: Great start to SfN

NeurEthicsLogoFriday, Nov 8.

I’ve come just come from  the annual meeting of the International Neuroethics Society, an SfN satellite meeting. Fascinating talks on fascinating topics.  Speakers and summaries here. The live video feed is over, but videos of the sessions appear to be available.  

trolley_2First Morning session: The science and ethics of moral enhancement. Molly Crockett, Pat Churchland,  and Julian Savulescu.  “Moral Enhancement” refers to extrinsic treatments that make an individual “more moral”. Clearly, forms of moral enhancement, via rewards and punishments, are as ancient as human culture. The concerns are that new interventions are more effective, untested, and coercive. Focus on oxytocin, serotonin, and brain stimulation. One conclusion (Crockett and Churchland): oxytocin and serotonin are not “moral molecules”; that is, they don’t have specific positive effects on moral decision making.  For example, serotonin may make  an individual more sympathetic to members of her group, she will likely be more aggressive to outsiders. One consensus: no more trolley cars! (GM took care of that). One issue in my mind: no definition of “morality”. Perhaps morality is like pornography: Can’t tell you what it is, but you know it when you see it.

Second Morning Session: Brief summaries of 5 outstanding posters. Each was interesting and clearly presented. Excellent brief presentation format. Here’s one: Jan Pieter Konsman (France) examined the source of exaggerated reports of fMRI in the popular press. Specifically, Konsman looked for press reports which, in some manner, said that finding brain activation patterns typical of pain demonstrated that pain was real, not subjective (He used the termed these neurorealistic statements). The surprising finding was that the origin of these “neurorealistic statements” was generally  direct quotes from the studies’ authors, not the creation of the journalist. The “neurorealistic statements” came not from the original paper, but, most frequently from the journalist’s discussion with the author. The suggestion is that scientists are in part responsible for the over-selling of neuroscience.

Early afternoon session: States of Consciousness: Neuroethics in impairments of consciousness, brain-machine interfacing and end of life decisions. The focus was on ‘locked in syndrome’, mechanisms of communication with patients (including functional imaging), quality of life (happiness). and the complexity of life-ending decisions. Really terrific presentations by John Packard, Joe Fins, Lisa Claydon and Nicholas Schiff. Broad ranging topics from the practical (end of life decisions) to the philosophical (how to measure meaning and value of a life) to the physiological (what is a “state of consciousness”? How do you measure a state? What is the underlying anatomy and physiology?). Did I mention? Really really good. Highlight of the day for me.

Late Afternoon: Can Neuroscience Inform Us about Criminality & the Capacity for Rehab?  Mauicio Delgado, Catherine Sebastian, J David Jentsch and Judge Robert Trentacosta. Not my primary interest, but excellent, wide ranging presentations. I was particularly interested in Catherine Sebastian’s description of brain maturation processes in adolescents, characterization of two groups of problem adolescents and effective treatment methods based, in part, on neuroscience.

Poster Session. Great overall quality. I spent my time at Julia Haas’s poster (Emory); can’t find my program for title. Describes a “neuroeconomic” approach to moral decision making. Sometimes a moral decision doesn’t compete well in a hierarchy of personal values. From the Singer perspective, sometimes an individual chooses to go shopping rather than save the drowning child because the value of shopping exceeds the calculated value of child-saving. There is a common currency across all motivations. Hope to get more info via email.

Overall. Remarkable meeting. Very high quality, most covering subjects I want to explore.

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