Drug addiction as a mental and social disorder

December 4, 2018

Michele FariscoCan the brain sciences help us to better understand and handle urgent social problems like drug addiction? Can they even help us understand how social disorder creates disorderly, addicted brains?

If, as seems to be the case, addiction has a strong cerebral base, then it follows that knowing the brain is the key to finding effective treatments for addiction. Yet, what aspects of the brain should be particularly investigated? In a recent article, co-authored with the philosopher Kathinka Evers and the neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux, I suggest that we need to focus on both aware and unaware processes in the brain, trying to figure out how these are affected by environmental influences, and how they eventually affect individual behavior.

There is no doubt that drug addiction is one of the most urgent emergencies in contemporary society. Think, for instance, of the opioid crisis in the US. It has become a kind of social plague, affecting millions of people. How was that possible? What are the causes of such a disaster? Of course, several factors contributed to the present crisis. We suggest, however, that certain external factors influenced brain processes on an unaware level, inviting addictive behavior.

To give an example, one of the causes of the opioid crisis seems to be the false assumption that opioid drugs do not cause addiction. Taking this view of opioid drugs was an unfortunate choice, we argue, likely favored by the financial interests of pharmaceutical companies. It affected not only physicians’ aware opinions, but also their unaware views on opioid drugs, and eventually their inclination to prescribe them. But that is not all. Since there is a general disposition to trust medical doctors’ opinions and choices, the original false assumption that opioid drugs do not cause addiction spread and affected also public opinion, especially at the unaware level. In other words, we think that there is a social responsibility for the increase in drug addiction, if not in ethical terms, at least in terms of public policies.

This is just an example of how external factors contribute to a personal disposition to use potentially addictive drugs. Of course, the factors involved in creating addiction are multifarious and not limited to false views about the risk of addiction associated with certain drugs.

More generally, we argue that in addition to the internal bases of addiction in the central nervous system, socio-economic status modulates, through unaware processing, what can be described as a person’s subjective “global well-being,” raising in some individuals the need for additional rewards in the brain. In the light of the impact of external factors, we argue that some people are particularly vulnerable to the pressures of the political and socio-economical capitalistic system, and that this stressful condition, which has both aware and unaware components, is one of the main causes of addiction. For this reason, we conclude that addiction is not only a medical and mental disorder, but also a social disorder.

Michele Farisco

Farisco M, Evers K and Changeux J-P (2018) Drug Addiction: From Neuroscience to Ethics. Front. Psychiatry 9:595. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00595


International brain initiatives need cultural awareness

November 12, 2018

Pär SegerdahlToday, billions of research dollars are being invested in developing huge research collaborations about the human brain. Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea and the United States have their own brain initiatives. In Europe, the Human Brain Project has a total budget of around one billion euros over a ten-year period, 2013-2023.

Scientific research is often seen as an activity that transcends cultural differences. However, research about the brain touches such fundamental aspects of human existence that it cannot ignore cultural views. For example, the notion that the brain, as a separate organ, is the locus of human identity, of the self, is not generally embraced. Neuroscientific research touches profound cultural ideas about human life which require careful philosophical and ethical attention.

The international brain initiatives also touch other culturally sensitive issues, in addition to questions about human identity. Ideas about death and brain death, about the use of nonhuman primates in research, about privacy and autonomy, and about mental illness, differ across cultures. For example, a diagnosis that in one culture can be seen as an opportunity to get individual treatment can in another culture threaten to condemn a whole family to social isolation.

Neuroethicists from parts of the world that currently make major investments in neuroscientific research met in Korea to highlight ethical questions on cultural differences, which the international brain initiatives need to address. This in order for the research to be conducted responsibly, with awareness of relevant cultural diversity. The questions that the neuroethicists (among them, Arleen Salles) propose should be addressed are summarized in an article in the journal Neuron.

The authors mention questions about how neuroscientific research could cause stigma in individuals or social groups, and about how cultural notions might bias research design and the interpretation of results. They ask how collecting and storing neural tissue can be viewed in different cultures, and about how we should understand the moral status of robots and computer-simulated brains. They mention questions about how new brain interventions (brain devices and drugs) may affect notions of responsibility and autonomy, as well as issues about drawing boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate uses of neuroscientific techniques. Finally, questions are highlighted about fair access to research results.

How can these questions be addressed and discussed in the international brain initiatives? The authors propose education in neuroethics, as well as dialogue with scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and finally improved communication and interaction with the publics.

Within the European Human Brain Project, four percent of the budget is used for ethics and society. Similar emphasis on ethical reflection would be desirable also in other brain initiatives.

Pär Segerdahl

Global Neuroethics Summit Delegates. 2018. Neuroethics questions to guide ethical research in the international brain initiatives. Neuron 100, October 10, 2018.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2018.09.021

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Part of international collaborations - the Ethics Blog


Sharing a blog post on consciousness

August 29, 2018

Michele Farisco at CRB has written an interesting post for the BMC blog on medicine. He says that “whereas ethical analyses of disorders of consciousness traditionally focus on residual awareness, there may be a case to be made for the ethical relevance of the retained unawareness.”

Interested to read more? Here is a link to the post: On consciousness and the unconscious.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


Philosophy in responsible research and innovation

August 22, 2018

Pär SegerdahlThe honorable discipline philosophy is hardly anything we associate with groundbreaking research and innovation. Perhaps it is time we began to see a connection.

To begin with, we can let go of the image of philosophy as an honorable discipline. Instead, let us talk about the spirit of philosophy. People who think for themselves, as philosophers do, rarely find themselves at home within the narrow bounds of disciplines and fields. Not even if they are called philosophical. On the contrary, if such a person encounters boundaries that restrict her thought, she investigates the boundaries. And removes them, if necessary.

Forget the reverent representation of philosophy as an honorable discipline.

The spirit of philosophy is to avoid discipline, submission, tradition and all forms of dependence. Someone who functions as a loyal representative of a philosophical school is hardly a genuine thinker. A philosopher is someone who, in a spirit of absolute independence, questions everything that makes a pretense of being true, right and correct. Therefore, it has been said that one cannot learn philosophy, only to philosophize. As soon as a philosophy crystallizes, the philosophical spirit awakens and investigates the boundaries of what usually turns out to be a fad that attracts insecure intellects who shun independent thinking. No system of thought restricts a freely investigating thinker. Especially not the philosophy that is in fashion.

How does this spirit of philosophy connect to research and innovation? The connection I see is different than you probably guess. It is not about boosting the development by removing all boundaries, but about taking responsibility for the development. Philosophical thinking does not resemble an overheated research field’s fast flow of ideas, or an entrepreneur’s grandiose visions for the future. On the contrary, a philosopher takes a step back to calmly investigate the flow of ideas and visions.

Philosophy’s freedom is basically a responsibility.

Responsible Research and Innovation has become an important political theme for the European Commission. This responsibility is understood as an interactive process that engages social actors, researchers and innovators. Together, they are supposed to work towards ethically permissible research activities and products. This presupposes addressing also underlying societal visions, norms and priorities.

For this to work, however, separate actors cannot propagate separate interests. You need to take a step back and make yourself independent of your own special interests. You need to make yourself independent of yourself! Reflect more open-mindedly than you were disciplined to function, and see beyond the bounds of your fragmentary little field (and self). This spacious spirit of philosophy needs to be awakened: the freedom of thought that is basically the responsibility of thought.

Concrete examples of what this means are given in the journal, Neuroethics. In an article, Arleen Salles, Kathinka Evers and Michele Farisco describe the role that philosophical reflection currently plays in the European Flagship, the Human Brain Project. Here, philosophy and neuroethics are no mere appendages of neuroscientific research. On the contrary, by reflecting on central concepts in the project, philosophers contribute to the overall self-understanding in the project. Not by imposing philosophy as a special interest, or as a competing discipline with its own concepts, but by open-mindedly reflecting on neuroscientific concepts, clarifying the questions they give rise to.

The authors describe three areas where philosophy contributes within the Human Brain Project, precisely through awakening the spirit of philosophy. First, conceptual questions about connections between the brain and human identity. Secondly, conceptual questions about connections between the brain and consciousness; and between consciousness and unconsciousness. Thirdly, conceptual questions about links between neuroscientific research and political initiatives, such as poverty reduction.

Let us drop the image of philosophy as a discipline. For we need the spirit of philosophy.

Pär Segerdahl

Salles, A., Evers, K. & Farisco, M. Neuroethics (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-018-9372-9

(By the way, anyone can philosophize. If you have the spirit, you are a philosopher. A demanding education in philosophy as a separate discipline can actually be an obstacle that you have to overcome.)

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Driverless car ethics

June 20, 2018

Pär SegerdahlSelf-driving robot cars are controlled by computer programs with huge amounts of traffic rules. But in traffic, not everything happens smoothly according to the rules. Suddenly a child runs out on the road. Two people try to help a cyclist who collapsed on the road. A motorist tries to make a U-turn on a too narrow road and is stuck, blocking the traffic.

Assuming that the robots’ programs are able to categorize traffic situations through image information from the cars’ cameras, the programs must select the appropriate driving behavior for the robot cars. Should the cars override important traffic rules by, for example, steering onto the sidewalk?

It is more complicated than that. Suppose that an adult is standing on the sidewalk. Should the adult’s life be compromised to save the child? Or to save the cyclist and the two helpful persons?

The designers of self-driving cars have a difficult task. They must program the cars’ choice of driving behavior in ethically complex situations that we call unexpected, but the engineers have to anticipate far in advance. They must already at the factory determine how the car model will behave in future “unexpected” traffic situations. Maybe ten years later. (I assume the software is not updated, but also updated software anticipates what we normally see as unexpected events.)

On a societal level, one now tries to agree on ethical guidelines for how future robot cars should behave in tragic traffic situations where it may not be possible to completely avoid injuries or fatal casualties. A commission initiated by the German Ministry for Transportation, for example, suggests that passengers of robot cars should never be sacrificed to save a larger number of lives in the traffic situation.

Who, by the way, would buy a robot car that is programmed to sacrifice one’s life? Who would choose such a driverless taxi? Yet, as drivers we may be prepared to sacrifice ourselves in unexpected traffic situations. Some researchers decided to investigate the matter. You can read about their study in ScienceDaily, or read the research article in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The researchers used Virtual Reality (VR) technology to expose subjects to ethically difficult traffic situations. Thereafter, they studied the subjects’ choice of traffic behavior. The researchers found that the subjects were surprisingly willing to sacrifice themselves to save others. But they also took into consideration the age of potential victims and were prepared to steer onto the sidewalk to minimize the number of traffic victims. This is contrary to norms that we hold important in society, such as the idea that age discrimination should not occur and that the lives of innocent people should be protected.

In short, humans are inclined to drive their cars politically incorrectly!

Why was the study done? As far as I understand, because the current discussion about ethical guidelines does not take into account empirical data on how living drivers are inclined to drive their cars in ethically difficult traffic situations. The robot cars will make ethical decisions that can make the owners of the cars dissatisfied with their cars; morally dissatisfied!

The researchers do not advocate that driverless cars should respond to ethically complex traffic situations as living people do. However, the discussion about driverless car ethics should take into account data on how living people are inclined to drive their cars in traffic situations where it may not be possible to avoid accidents.

Let me complement the empirical study with some philosophical reflections. What strikes me when I read about driverless car ethics is that “the unexpected” disappears as a living reality. A living driver who tries to handle a sudden traffic situation manages what very obviously is happening right now. The driverless car, on the other hand, takes decisions that tick automatically, as predetermined as any other decision, like stopping at a red light. Driverless car ethics is just additional software that the robot car is equipped with at the factory (or when updating the software).

What are the consequences?

A living driver who suddenly ends up in a difficult traffic situation is confronted – as I said – with what is happening right now. The driver may have to bear responsibility for his actions in this intense moment during the rest of his life. Even if the driver rationally sacrifices one life to save ten, the driver will bear the burden of this one death; dream about it, think about it. And if the driver makes a stupid decision that takes more lives than it saves, it may still be possible to reconcile with it, because the situation was so unexpected.

This does not apply, however, to the robot car that was programmed at the factory according to guidelines from the National Road Administration. We might want to say that the robot car was preprogrammed to sacrifice our sister’s life, when she stood innocently on the sidewalk. Had the car been driven by a living person, we would have been angry with the driver. But after some time, we might be able to start reconciling with the driver’s behavior. Because it was such an unexpected situation. And the driver is suffering from his actions.

However, if it had been a driverless car that worked perfectly according to the manufacturer’s programs and the authorities’ recommendations, then we might see it as a scandal that the car was preprogrammed to steer onto the sidewalk, where our sister stood.

One argument for driverless cars is that, by minimizing the human factor, they can reduce the number of traffic accidents. Perhaps they can. But maybe we are less accepting as to how they are programmed to save lives in ethically difficult situations. Not only are they preprogrammed so that “the unexpected” disappears as a reality. They do not bear the responsibility that living people are forced to bear, even for their rational decisions.

Well, we will probably find ways to implement and accept the use of driverless cars. But another question still concerns me. If the present moment disappears as a living reality in the ethics software of driverless cars, has it not already disappeared in the ethics that prescribes right and wrong for us living people?

Pär Segerdahl

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Can neuroscience and moral education be united?

June 4, 2018

Daniel Pallarés DomínguezPeople have started to talk about neuroeducation, but what is it? Is it just another example of the fashion of adding the prefix neuro- to the social sciences, like neuroethics, neuropolitics, neuromarketing and neurolaw?

Those who remain sceptical consider it a mistake to link neuroscience with education. However, for some authors, neuroscience can provide useful knowledge about the brain, and they see neuroeducation as a young field of study with many possibilities.

From its birth in the decade of the brain (1990), neuroeducation has been understood as an interdisciplinary field that studies developmental learning processes in the human brain. It is one of the last social neurosciences to be born. It has the progressive aim of improving learning-teaching methodologies by applying the results of neuroscientific research.

Neuroscientific research already plays an important role in education. Taking into account the neural bases of human learning, neuroeducation looks not only for theoretical knowledge but also for practical implications, such as new teaching methodologies, and it reviews classical assumptions about learning and studies disorders of learning. Neuroeducation studies offer possibilities such as early detection of special learning needs or even monitoring and comparing different teaching methodologies implemented in school.

Although neuroeducation primarily focuses on disorders of learning, especially in mathematics and language (dyscalculia and dyslexia), can it be extended to other areas? If neuroscience can shed light on the development of ethics in the brain, can such explorations form the basis of a new form of neuroeducation, moral neuroeducation, which studies the learning or development of ethics?

Before introducing a new term (moral neuroeducation), prudence and critical discussion are needed. First, what would the goal of moral neuroeducation be? Should it consider moral disorders in the brain or just immoral behaviours? Second, neuroscientific knowledge is used in neuroeducation to help design practices that allow more efficient teaching to better develop students’ intellectual potentials throughout their training process. Should this be the goal also of moral neuroeducation? Should we strive for greater efficiency in teaching ethics? If so, what is the ethical competence we should try to develop in students?

It seems that we still need a critical and philosophical approach to the promising union of neuroscience and moral education. In my postdoctoral project, Neuroethical Bases for Moral Neuroeducation, I will contribute to developing such an approach.

Daniel Pallarés Domínguez

My postdoctoral research at the Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics (CRB) is linked to a research project funded by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness in Spain. That project is entitled, Moral Neuroeducation for Applied Ethics [FFI2016-76753-C2-2-P], and is led by Domingo García-Marzá.

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Can a robot learn to speak?

May 29, 2018

Pär SegerdahlThere are self-modifying computer programs that “learn” from success and failure. Chess-playing computers, for example, become better through repeated games against humans.

Could a similar robot also learn to speak? If the robot gets the same input as a child gets when it learns to speak, should it not be possible in principle?

Notice how the question zigzags between child and machine. We say that the robot learns. We say that the child gets input. We speak of the robot as if it were a child. We speak of the child as if it were a robot. Finally, we take this linguistic zigzagging seriously as a fascinating question, perhaps even a great research task.

An AI expert and prospective father who dreamed of this great research task took the following ambitious measures. He equipped his whole house with cameras and microphones, to document all parent-child interactions during the child’s first years. Why? He wanted to know exactly what kind of linguistic input a child gets when it learns to speak. At a later stage, he might be able to give a self-modifying robot the same input and test if it also learns to speak.

How did the project turn out? The personal experience of raising the child led the AI ​​expert to question the whole project of teaching a robot to speak. How could a personal experience lead to the questioning of a seemingly serious scientific project?

Here, I could start babbling about how amiably social children are compared to cold machines. How they learn in close relationships with their parents. How they curiously and joyfully take the initiative, rather than calculatingly await input.

The problem is that such babbling on my part would make it seem as if the AI ​​expert simply was wrong about robots and children. That he did not know the facts, but now is more well-informed. It is not that simple. For the idea behind ​​the project presupposed unnoticed linguistic zigzagging. Already in asking the question, the boundaries between robots and children are blurred. Already in the question, we have half answered it!

We cannot be content with responding to the question in the headline with a simple, “No, it cannot.” We must reject the question as nonsense. Deceitful zigzagging creates the illusion that we are dealing with a serious question, worthy of scientific study.

This does not exclude, however, that computational linguistics increasingly uses self-modifying programs, and with great success. But that is another question.

Pär Segerdahl

Beard, Alex. How babies learn – and why robots can’t compete. The Guardian, 3 April 2018

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