The unconscious deserves moral attention

January 10, 2018

Pär SegerdahlLast autumn, Michele Farisco wrote one of the most read posts on The Ethics Blog. The post was later republished by BioEdge.

Today, I want to recommend a recent article where Farisco develops his thinking – read it in the journal, Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine.

The article will certainly receive at least as much attention as the blog post did. Together with Kathinka Evers, Farisco develops a way of thinking about the unconscious that at first seems controversial, but which after careful consideration becomes increasingly credible. That combination is hard to beat.

What is it about? It is about patients with serious brain injuries, perhaps after a traffic accident. Ethical discussions about these patients usually focus on residual consciousness. We think that there is an absolute difference between consciousness and unconsciousness. Only a conscious person can experience well-being. Only a conscious person can have interests. Therefore, a patient with residual consciousness deserves a completely different care than an unconscious patient. A different attention to pain relief, peace and quiet, and stimulation. – Why create a warm and stimulating environment if the patient is completely unaware of it?

In the article, Farisco challenges the absolute difference between consciousness and unconsciousness. He describes neuroscientific evidence that indicates two often-overlooked connections between conscious and unconscious brain processes. The first is that the unconscious (at least partly) has the abilities that are considered ethically relevant when residual consciousness is discussed. The other connection is that conscious and unconscious brain processes are mutually dependent. They shape each other. Even unconsciously, the brain reacts uniquely to the voices of family members.

Farisco does not mean that this proves that we have an obligation to treat unconscious patients as conscious. However, the unconscious deserves moral attention. Perhaps we should strive to assess also retained unconscious abilities. In some cases, we should perhaps play the music the patient loved before the accident.

Pär Segerdahl

Farisco, M. and Evers, K. The ethical relevance of the unconscious. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine (2017) DOI 10.1186/s13010-017-0053-9

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Beyond awareness: the need for a more comprehensive ethics of disorders of consciousness

October 23, 2017

Michele FariscoDisorders of consciousness like coma, unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, and what is known as minimally conscious state, are among the most challenging issues in current ethical debates. Ethical analyses of these states usually focus on the ‘residual’ awareness that these patients might still have. Such awareness is taken to have bearing on other factors that are usually considered ethically central, like the patients’ well-being.

Yet, when we take a look at recent scientific investigations of mental activity it appears that things are much more complicated than usually thought. Cognitive science provides empirical evidence that the unconscious brain is able to perform almost all the activities that we (wrongly) think are exclusive of consciousness, including enjoying positive emotions and disregarding negative ones. To illustrate, people that are subliminally exposed to drawings of happy or sad faces are emotionally conditioned in their evaluation of unknown objects, like Chinese characters for people who don’t know Chinese. If preceded by subliminal happy faces, these characters are more likely to elicit positive feelings when consciously perceived. This means that unconscious emotions exist, and these emotions are (plausibly) positive or negative. This in turn suggests that consciousness is not required to have emotions.

Accordingly, people with disorders of consciousness could also have unconscious emotions. Even though they are not capable of external behavior from which we could infer the presence of positive or negative emotional life, we cannot rule out the possibility that these patients’ residual brain activity is related to a residual unaware emotional life, which can be either positive or negative.

We should try to avoid becoming biased by the sort of “consciousness-centrism” that impedes us from seeing the total landscape: there is a lot going on behind (and beyond) the eyes of our awareness.

What does this imply for the ethics of caring for and interacting with people affected by severe disorders of consciousness? Well, as previously said, the ethical discourse surrounding the care for and the relationship with these people has usually focused on their residual awareness, scrutinizing whether and to what extent these people could consciously experience good and bad feelings. Yet if it is possible to have these experiences at the unaware level, shouldn’t this be a relevant consideration when engaging in an ethical analysis of patients with disorders of consciousness? In other words, shouldn’t we take care of their residual unconsciousness in addition to their residual consciousness?

I believe we need to enlarge the scope of our ethical analyses of patients with disorders of consciousness, or at least acknowledge that focusing on residual consciousness is not all we should do, even if it is all we presently can do.

Michele Farisco

Winkielman P., Berridge K.C. Unconscious emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2004;13(3):120-3

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When “neuro” met “ethics”

June 13, 2017

Pär SegerdahlTwo short words increasingly often appear in combination with names of professional fields and scientific disciplines: neuro and ethics. Here are some examples: Neuromusicology, neurolaw, neuropedagogy. Bioethics, nursing ethics, business ethics.

Neuro… typically signifies that neuroscience sheds light on the subject matter of the discipline with which it combines. It can illuminate what happens in the brain when we listen to music (neuromusicology). What happens in the brain when witnesses recall events or when judges evaluate the evidence (neurolaw). What happens in children’s brains when they study mathematics (neuropedagogy).

…ethics (sometimes, ethics of…) typically signifies that the discipline it combines with gives rise to its own ethical problems, requiring ethical reflection and unique ethical guidelines. Even war is said to require its own ethics of war!

In the 1970s, these two words, neuro and ethics, finally met and formed neuroethics. The result is an ambiguous meeting between two short but very expansive words. Which of the two words made the advance? Where is the emphasis? What sheds light on what?

At first, ethics got the emphasis. Neuroethics was, simply, the ethics of neuroscience, just as nursing ethics is the ethics of nursing. Soon, however, neuro demonstrated its expansive power. Today, neuroethics is not only the “ethics of neuroscience,” but also the “neuroscience of ethics”: neuroscience can illuminate what happens in the brain when we face ethical dilemmas. The emphasis thus changes back and forth between neuroethics and neuroethics.

The advances of these two words, and their final meeting in neuroethics, reflects, of course, the expansive power of neuroscience and ethics. Why are these research areas so expansive? Partly because the brain is involved in everything we do. And because all we do can give rise to ethical issues. The meeting between neuro… and …ethics was almost inevitable.

What did the meeting result in? In a single discipline, neuroethics? Or in two distinct disciplines, neuroethics and neuroethics, which just happen to be spelt the same way, but should be kept separate?

As far as I understand, the aim is to keep neuroethics together as one interdisciplinary field, with a two-way dialogue between an “ethics of neuroscience” and a “neuroscience of ethics.” This seems wise. It would be difficult to keep apart what was almost predetermined to meet and combine. Neuroethics would immediately try to shed its neuroscientific light on neuroethics. And neuroethics would be just as quick to develop ethical views on neuroethics. The wisest option appears to be dialogue, accepting a meeting that appears inevitable.

An interesting article in Bioethics, authored by Eric Racine together with, among others, Michele Farisco at CRB, occasions my thoughts in this post. The subject matter of the article is neuroethics: the neuroscience of ethics. Neuroethics is associated with rather grandiose claims. It has been claimed that neuroscience can support a better theory of ethics. That it can provide the basis for a universal ethical theory that transcends political and cultural divides. That it can develop a brain-based ethics. That it can reveal the mechanisms underlying moral judgments. Perhaps neuroscience will soon solve moral dilemmas and transform ethics!

These pretentions have stimulated careless over-interpretation of neuroscientific experiments. They have also provoked rash dismissal of neuroethics and its relevance to ethics. The purpose of the article is to support a more moderate and deliberate approach, through a number of methodological guideposts for the neuroscience of ethics. These include conceptual and normative transparency, scientific validity, interdisciplinary methods, and balanced interpretation of results.

In view of this critical perspective on hyped neuroscientific claims, one could define the article as a neuroethical article on neuroethics. Following the linguistic pattern that I described above, the article is an example of neuroethics-ethics. No, this will not do! We cannot use these two expansive words to specify in neurotic detail who currently happens to advance into whose field.

I choose to describe the article, simply, as a neuroethical paper on neuroethics. I want to see it as an example of the dialogue that can unite neuroethics as an interdisciplinary field.

Pär Segerdahl

Racine, E., Dubljevic´, V., Jox, R. J., Baertschi, B., Christensen, J. F., Farisco, M., Jotterand, F., Kahane, G., Müller, S. (2017). “Can neuroscience contribute to practical ethics? A critical review and discussion of the methodological and translational challenges of the neuroscience of ethics.” Bioethics 31: 328-337.

This post in Swedish

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The New Yorker features resignation syndrome

March 29, 2017

Pär SegerdahlLast year I wrote a post about resignation syndrome in children in families who are denied asylum in Sweden. I described a hypothesis about the syndrome suggested by Karl Sallin, PhD student at CRB in the field of neuroethics and neurophilosophy.

An intuitive explanation is that the syndrome is a reaction to prolonged stress and depression. A reaction that is triggered when the family is denied asylum. However, if the explanation is correct, the syndrome should exist on a similar scale also in other countries that receive refugee families. It seems it does not.

To understand what happens to these children, we should, Karl Sallin suggested, see it as a psychological reaction that occurs in the meeting between certain cultures and Swedish cultural conditions. For another peculiarity is the fact that the syndrome occurs mainly in families from certain parts of the world. We are dealing with a culture bound psychopathology, Sallin proposed in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The New Yorker recently wrote about this “Swedish” syndrome, in a long article in which Karl Sallin interviewed.

The article contains a touching description of how one of these children falls ill when the family is denied asylum. For several months, he is confined to bed, not contactable, and he must be tube fed. When the family gets permanent residence, they try to convey this to the boy. After two weeks, he begins to open his eyes. After a further seven weeks, the nasal tube taped to his cheek falls out. Finally, he can return to school and begin to talk about the disease.

The article in The New Yorker emphasizes that the syndrome is a culture-bound psychopathology. However, the tendency seems to be to point out Sweden’s crumbling self-image as the relevant cultural context for the disease. We see “apathetic refugee children” as symbols of our own moral failure to treat them and their families humanely. Therefore, we tube feed them without further treatment, while waiting for the family to hopefully get their residence permit. This creates a culture where children become sick when their families are denied asylum.

This can hardly be the whole explanation, since it then becomes difficult to understand why mainly children from certain parts of the world are afflicted. Moreover, mainly children who come together with their families, rather than unaccompanied refugee children. The cultural dynamics seems to be more complex than the desire to find scapegoats for the syndrome can handle.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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Two researchers in neuroethics

December 5, 2016

Our neuroethics group at CRB currently seek two postdoctoral researchers to work in the Human Brain Project (European Commission Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship Project). The positions have different focus.

One research task focuses on the role of contexts and cultural imprinting in understanding the brain’s functional architectures. Read more and apply.

The second research task focuses on philosophical and ethical challenges of modelling cognitive processes in silica. Read more and apply.

Employments are temporary, renewable halftime positions, starting February 1, 2017 (or as otherwise agreed). If you have questions, please contact Kathinka Evers.

Application deadline is January 12, 2017.

Pär Segerdahl

We transgress disciplinary borders - the Ethics Blog


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.

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Direct brain communication: a new book

May 17, 2016

Pär SegerdahlImages of the brain, created with advanced technology, are known to most of us. But progress in neuroscience is fast. Less familiar are new technical opportunities to communicate directly with the brain … or however you put it!

Even the unconscious brain is alive. It has been possible to depict responses in the “unconscious” brain to what occurs in its environment. In some cases one has been able to establish communication, where the “unconscious” patient answers yes/no-questions by thinking of one thing if the answer is “yes” and on another thing if the answer is “no.” This activates different parts of the brain. Since researchers/doctors can detect which part of the brain is activated, the patient can answer questions and communicate with the outside world. (Here is an earlier post on this.)

Other examples of this development are new interfaces between brain and computer, where people learn to control a computer, not through the muscles, but via electrodes connected in the brain. People who cannot communicate verbally can thus get computer support. They can also learn to control prostheses. The brain is obviously exceptionally plastic and interactive!

A new anthology, with Michele Farisco and Kathinka Evers from CRB as editors, systematically assesses the philosophical, scientific, ethical and legal issues that this development implies: Neurotechnology and Direct Brain Communication (Routledge, 2016).

The book addresses scientific and clinical implications of the possibility to communicate with patients who may not be quite as unconscious as we thought. Perhaps we should rather talk about altered states of consciousness. But also infant care is discussed, as well as ethical and legal issues about authority, informed consent and privacy.

The book is written for researchers and graduate students in cognitive science, neurology, psychiatry, clinical psychology, medicine, medical ethics, medical technology, neuroethics, neurophilosophy and philosophy of mind. It may interest also healthcare professionals and a broader public fascinated by the mind.

Michele Farisco and Kathinka Evers both work in the European flagship project, Human Brain Project.

(You find more information about the book and about the editors here.)

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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