The brain develops in interaction with culture

November 16, 2016

Pär SegerdahlThe brain develops dramatically during childhood. These neural changes occur in the child’s interaction with its environment. The brain becomes a brain that functions in the culture in which it develops. If a child is mistreated, if it is deprived of important forms of interaction, like language and care, the brain is deprived of its opportunities to develop. This can result in permanent damages.

The fact that the brain develops in interaction with culture and becomes a brain that functions in culture, raises the question if we can change the brain by changing the culture it interacts with during childhood. Can we, on the basis of neuroscientific knowledge, plan neural development culturally? Can we shape our own humanity?

In an article in EMBO reports, Kathinka Evers and Jean-Pierre Changeux discuss this neuro-cultural outlook, where brain and culture are seen as co-existing in continual interplay. They emphasize that our societies shape our brains, while our brains shape our societies. Then they discuss the possibilities this opens up for ethics.

The question in the article is whether knowledge about the dynamic interplay between co-existing brains-and-cultures can be used “proactively” to create environments that shape children’s brains and make them, for example, less violent. Environments in which they become humans with ethical norms and response patterns that better meet today’s challenges.

Similar projects have been implemented in school systems, but here the idea is to plan them on the basis of knowledge about the dynamic brain. But also on the basis of societal decision-making about which ethics that should be supported; about which values that are essential for life on this planet.

Personally I’m attracted by “co-existence thinking” as such, which I believe applies to many phenomena. For not only the brain develops in interaction with culture. So does plant and animal life, as well as climate – which in turn will shape human life.

Maybe it is such thinking we need: an ethics of co-existence. Co-existence thinking gives us responsibilities: through awareness of a mistreated nature; through awareness of our dependence on this nature. But such thinking also transcends what we otherwise could have imagined, by introducing the idea of possibilities emerging from the interplay.

Do not believe preachers of necessity. It could have been different. It can become different.

Pär Segerdahl

Evers, K. & Changeux, J-P. 2016. “Proactive epigenesis and ethical innovation: A neuronal hypothesis for the genesis of ethical rules.” EMBO reports 17: 1361-1364.

This post in Swedish

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


Online research ethics: A pedagogic challenge

May 19, 2015

Stefan ErikssonResearchers, scientists and professionals who are somehow involved in research, need to develop an ability to detect ethical problems. But we also need to learn how to do something about them. – How can we learn?

The Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB) has developed a web-based training in research ethics. And now we are looking forward to a pedagogic challenge!

Research ethics is not only following rules and regulations. It is also about training your ethical competence. We have decided to use a new approach: a web based training that requires commitment from both teacher and student.

We emphasize interactivity. Research ethics is about learning from history and understanding how norms affect what we do. But research ethics is also about reflecting on your own attitudes and actions. This is why we believe that talking with others is important. We have added e-meetings to the training where we give every participant opportunities to discuss research ethical problems. In addition, every lesson has a theme and we use chatrooms to discuss related cases.

Last term we tested this concept on participants from Europe, Egypt and Singapore. Now it is time to launch our training and open it for participants from all over the world. Our aim is high: We want to offer the most complete, updated end enjoyable training you can imagine!

Online distance training has some advantages in itself: It is flexible for the student, relatively cheap and there are good opportunities to have individual support for your studies. Add the possibilities that a modern, digital learning environment can offer: video films that can be interactive, e-meetings, quizzes, TED lectures, discussions in chat rooms and more offer opportunities for both variety and having fun, learning and reflection on several different platforms. Sites that allow users to try randomizing participants in a study can create a greater understanding of how it is done rather than just reading about it. We collect all these resources in one place for students to reach whenever they want. This way, the focus is on students learning instead of teaching.

Having students from different backgrounds adds strength to the training, but it is also a challenge. An important aspect is to try and capture the different experiences and circumstances they bring to the course. Coming from different cultural environments, they will meet different challenges when they try to implement an ethical stance in their work. Participants can learn a lot from each other and increase their understanding of the conditions that other’s work under. But positions and traditions can also seem difficult to understand, or hard to put forth to others.

Online research ethics training for medicine & the life sciences - Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)Distance learning risks creating a situation where some participants are unable to take responsibility for their studies and hesitate to ask for help. Creating a positive, allowing atmosphere is not something that can be realized through the design of tasks or user interfaces (although those things matter too). It is something that you convey by the way to act towards others. There is a challenge for the teacher here: trying not to inhibit the student’s activities, or ending up on the outside of the group’s dynamic and development.

As a teacher, you soon realize that you have to work hard on both content and form. A difficulty is balancing the student’s freedom to plan the work to fit a schedule (that is probably quite busy already), with the aim to have interactive parts of the training that everyone has to be there for: both in time and progress. During the pilot it became obvious that students found it hard to follow the common time plan.

In the end, when people from different places can meet each other in a learning environment, exciting opportunities present themselves. One course can mix traditional teaching with different pedagogic models and technology. The challenge lies in finding a balance between the focus the training needs and the freedom that is so appreciated, and between structure and the endless pedagogic possibilities that this format offers. For the teacher, the task becomes to organize and guide students on the different paths that move them along in their individual learning processes. A challenge that I find both enjoyable and important!

Want to try it? Go to www.ethicstraining.crb.uu.se

Stefan Eriksson

We care about education


Learning ethics online

November 26, 2014

Stefan ErikssonAs you read this, PhD students, researchers and professionals from Egypt, Singapore, Germany, Italy and Sweden are busy discussing publication ethics online. Next week the topic is situations where research results can be used to harm. They are trying a new kind of online research ethics training. The idea is to give them hands-on knowledge and a sense of responsibility. But can you do that online?

The hope is of course that the feeling of responsibility stays with you after you have completed the training and can be mobilised if and when you run into an ethical dilemma. The goal of any ethics training, whether online or in a classroom, should be to help the participants to become better at reflecting on their own pre-conceptions and values. And learn to put those in relation to research ethical dilemmas. In the long run, we believe this is how you can help the scientific community to uphold research integrity.

There is increasingJosepine Fernow demand on research ethics training from funding agencies and universities. At the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics we decided to challenge ourselves to make good training available to everyone who needs it, regardless of where they are in the world. As we write this, both of us, Stefan Eriksson and Josepine Fernow, are part of an exciting journey as teacher and student. Right now the first pilot version of the course is running and we are able to see for ourselves if it is possible to meet that goal online.

For Stefan, as developer and teacher, the aim has been to create a course that is both fun and interactive, and where everything you need is available in one place. The main driving force behind our decision to create this course came from the funding agencies. The US National Institutes of Health has raised a demand for formal training from everyone who applies for funding for research on humans. But most of the online courses available are not interactive enough and doesn’t meet their demands on content. We decided to rise to the challenge and it turns out an online course can be much more interactive than you might think at first glance.

What are the upsides to online training? For Josepine, as a student, of course there is the practical side to being able to work at your own pace. And it is convenient to have everything you need to read, watch and do available freely on the Internet. With this course it turns out it was possible to get the advantages of an online course without losing out on interaction with other participants. The discussion format to some extent also forces you to formulate and express your opinion. That isn’t always the case in a classroom full of other students.

The course is made to fit everyone from graduate student to senior researcher. It works for professionals and officials from funding agencies and research ethics committees and everyone else who needs to be aware of and handle research ethics in one form or the other. In the pilot training we are running now it has become clear that there are only advantages to having a broad range of students. The fact that the people in the course have different backgrounds and nationalities adds a bonus: Discussing with people with different roles in different organizations, from different countries, with different cultures, and different regulatory systems serves to show that at the end of the day, we are all just people. And as people, we need to be able to mobilise our sense of responsibility when faced with research ethical dilemmas.

Stefan Eriksson, Associate Professor of Research Ethics

Josepine Fernow, Co-ordinator


The teacher as an example

November 12, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogTeachers want to affect their students. The intent, after all, is for students to acquire certain knowledge and skills. To achieve this, the teacher exhibits exemplars of what the students should know. The teacher talks in exemplary ways about the industrial revolution, about bioethical principles, or shows exemplars of what it means to “add 2” or what a “chemical reaction” is.

The students are then given exercises where they reproduce the exemplars in their own speech, writing and practice. Finally, they are examined. How well have they been affected by the educationally exhibited exemplars and by the exercises?

This description of the learning situation is greatly reduced. Not least because of its focus on the teaching of knowledge and skills. The teacher’s role is reduced to that of holding up exemplars of what the students should know (or be able to do).

But the teaching room contains one additional “exemplar” that is quite important: the teacher.

How does the teacher function as an exemplar? By being there as “a person who …” The teacher functions as a living example of a person who is engaged in history, in bioethics, in mathematics or in chemistry.

The teacher is an example of what one can be (historian, bioethicist …). Not just of what one should know.

The teacher’s exemplary role as “a person who…” can be problematic. Suppose that the physics teacher is a man who almost exclusively addresses the male students. He thereby shows (through his “exemplary” presence) that a physicist is (preferably) male.

Nevertheless, I submit that the teacher’s exemplary presence as “a person who …” is essential. Without it, the students become reduced. Education that puts too much emphasis on knowledge and skills may even make it exemplary that this is what an “educated person” is: A one-dimensional functionary equipped with certain knowledge and skills.

Who desires to be that? Is it even possible? Or is it to overlook what we inevitably are: living persons who…?

Pär Segerdahl

We care about education


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