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.

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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

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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

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Searching for consciousness needs conceptual clarification

March 15, 2016

Michele FariscoWe can hardly think of ourselves as living persons without referring to consciousness. In fact, we normally define ourselves through two features of our life: we are awake (the level of our consciousness is more than zero), and we are aware of something (our consciousness is not empty).

While it is quite intuitive to think that our brains are necessary for us to be conscious, it is tempting to think that looking at what is going on in the brain is enough to understand consciousness. But empirical investigations are not enough.

Neuroscientific methods to investigate consciousness and its disorders have developed massively in the last decades. The scientific and clinical advancements that have resulted are impressive. But while the ethical and clinical impacts of these advancements are often debated and studied, there is little conceptual analysis.

I think of one example in particular, namely, the neuroscience of disorders of consciousness. These are states where a person’s consciousness is more or less severely damaged. Most commonly, we think of patients in vegetative state, who exhibit levels of consciousness without any content. But it could also be a minimally conscious state with fluctuating levels and contents of consciousness.

How can we explain these complex conditions? Empirical science is usually supposed to be authoritative and help to assess very important issues, such as consciousness. Such scientific knowledge is basically inferential: it is grounded in the comparative assessment of residual consciousness in brain-damaged patients.

But because of its inferential nature, neuroscience takes the form of an inductive reasoning: it infers the presence of consciousness starting from data extracted by neurotechnology. This is done by comparing data from brain damaged patients with data from healthy individuals. Yet this induction is valid only on the basis of a previous definition of consciousness, a definition we made within an implicit or explicit theoretical framework. Thus a conceptual assessment of consciousness that is defined within a well-developed conceptual framework is crucial, and it will affect the inference of consciousness from empirical data.

When it comes to disorders of consciousness, there is still no adequate conceptual analysis of the complexity of consciousness: its levels, modes and degrees. Neuroscience often takes a functionalist account of consciousness for granted in which consciousness is assumed to be equivalent to cognition or at least to be based in cognition. Yet findings from comatose patients suggest that this is not the case. Instead, consciousness seems to be grounded on the phenomenal functions of the brain as they are related to the resting state’s activity.

For empirical neuroscience to be able to contribute to an understanding of consciousness, neuroscientists need input from philosophy. Take the case of communication with speechless patients through neurotechnology (Conversations with seemingly unconscious patients), or the prospective simulation of the brain (The challenge to simulate the brain) for example: here scientists can give philosophers empirical data that need to be considered in order to develop a well-founded conceptual framework within which consciousness can be defined.

The alleged autonomy of empirical science as source of objective knowledge is problematic. This is the reason why philosophy needs to collaborate with scientists in order to conceptually refine their research methods. On the other hand, dialogue with science is essential for philosophy to be meaningful.

We need a conceptual strategy for clarifying the theoretical framework of neuroscientific inferences. This is what we are trying to do in our CRB neuroethics group as part of the Human Brain Project (Neuroethics and Neurophilosophy).

Michele Farisco

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