Our publications on neuroethics and philosophy of the brain

June 30, 2015

Pär SegerdahlAt CRB, an international, multidisciplinary research group works with ethical and philosophical questions that are associated with the neuroscientific exploration of the human mind and brain.

As part of the European Human Brain Project, they approach not only ethical questions that arise, or may arise, with the development and practical application of neuroscience. They also more fundamentally explore philosophical questions about, for example, the concepts of consciousness, human identity, and the self.

In order to give an overview of their extensive work, we recently compiled a report of their articles, books and book chapters. It is available online:

The report also contains abstracts of all the publications. – Have a look at the compilation; I’m sure you will find it fascinating!

I might add that we recently updated similar reports on our work in biobank ethics and in nursing ethics:

Here too you’ll find abstracts of our interesting publications in these fields.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


Where is consciousness?

May 26, 2015

 

Michele FariscoWould it be possible to use brain imaging techniques to detect consciousness and then “read” directly in people’s brains what they want or do not want? Could one, for example, ask a severely brain injured patient for consent to some treatment, and then obtain an answer through a brain scan?

Together with the philosopher Kathinka Evers and the neuroscientist Steven Laureys, I recently investigated ethical and clinical issues arising from this prospective “cerebral communication.”

Our brains are so astonishingly complex! The challenge is how to handle this complexity. To do that we need to develop our conceptual apparatus and create what we would like to call a “fundamental” neuroethics. Sound research needs solid theory, and in line with this I would like to comment upon the conceptual underpinnings of this ongoing endeavor of developing a “fundamental” neuroethics.

The assumption that visualizing activity in a certain brain area can mean reading the conscious intention of the scanned subject presupposes that consciousness can be identified with particular brain areas. While both science and philosophy widely accept that consciousness is a feature of the brain, recent developments in neuroscience problematize relating consciousness to specific areas of the brain.

Tricky logical puzzles arise here. The so called “mereological fallacy” is the error of attributing properties of the whole (the living human person) to its parts (the brain). In our case a special kind of mereological fallacy risks to be embraced: attributing features of the whole (the brain) to its parts (those visualized as more active in the scan). Consciousness is a feature of the whole brain: the sole fact that a particular area is more active than others does not imply conscious activity.

The reverse inference is another nice logical pitfall: the fact that a study reveals that a particular cerebral area, say A, is more active during a specific task, say T, does not imply that A always results in T, nor that T always presupposes A.

In short, we should avoid the conceptual temptation to view consciousness according to the so called “homunculus theory”: like an entity placed in a particular cerebral area. This is unlikely: consciousness does not reside in specific brain regions, but is rather equivalent to the activity of the brain as a whole.

But where is consciousness? To put it roughly, it is nowhere and everywhere in the brain. Consciousness is a feature of the brain and the brain is more than the sum of its parts: it is an open system, where external factors can influence its structure and function, which in turn affects our consciousness. Brain and consciousness are continually changing in deep relationships with the external environment.

We address these issues in more detail in a forthcoming book that I and Kathinka Evers are editing, involving leading researchers both in neuroscience and in philosophy:

Michele Farisco

We want solid foundations - the Ethics Blog

 


Neuroethics: new wine in old bottles?

April 7, 2015

Michele FariscoNeuroscience is increasingly raising philosophical, ethical, legal and social problems concerning old issues which are now approached in a new way: consciousness, freedom, responsibility and self are today investigated in a new light by the so called neuroethics.

Neuroethics was conceived as a field deserving its own name at the beginning of the 21st century. Yet philosophy is much older, and its interest in “neuroethical” issues can be traced back to its very origins.

What is “neuroethics”? Is it a new way of doing or a new way of thinking ethics? Is it a sub-field of bioethics? Or does it stand as a discipline in its own? Is it only a practical or even a conceptual discipline?

I would like to suggest that neuroethics – besides the classical division between “ethics of neuroscience” and “neuroscience of ethics” – above all needs to be developed as a conceptual assessment of what neuroscience is telling us about our nature: the progress in neuroscientific investigation has been impressive in the last years, and in the light of huge investments in this field (e.g., the European Human Brain Project and the American BRAIN Initiative) we can bet that new  striking discoveries will be made in the next decades.

For millennia, philosophers were interested in exploring what was generally referred to as human nature, and particularly the mind as one of its essential dimensions. Two avenues have been traditionally developed within the general conception of mind: a non-materialistic and idealistic approach (the mind is made of a special stuff non-reducible to the brain); and a materialistic approach (the mind is no more than a product or a property of the brain).

Both interpretations assume a dualistic theoretical framework: the human being is constituted from two completely different dimensions, which have completely different properties with no interrelations between them, or, at most, a relationship mediated solely by an external element. Such a dualistic approach to human identity is increasingly criticized by contemporary neuroscience, which is showing the plastic and dynamic nature of the human brain and consequently of the human mind.

This example illustrates in my view that neuroethics above all is a philosophical discipline with a peculiar interdisciplinary status: it can be a privileged field where philosophy and science collaborate in order to conceptually cross the wall which has been built between them.

Michele Farisco

We transgress disciplinary borders - the Ethics Blog


How can the brain be computer simulated?

October 29, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogA computer simulated human brain – that undoubtedly sounds like science fiction. But the EU flagship project, the Human Brain Project, actually has computer simulation of the brain as an objective.

What will be accomplished during the ten years that the project is financed will presumably be simulations of more limited brain functions (often in the mouse brain). But the proud objective to simulate the human brain has now been formulated in a serious research project.

But what does “computer simulation of the brain” mean?

In an article in the journal Neuron Kathinka Evers and Yadin Dudai discuss the meaning of simulation of the brain. Kathinka Evers from CRB leads the philosophical research in the EU Project and Yadin Dudai is a neuroscientist from the Weizmann Institute of Science who also works in the project.

The article combines philosophical and scientific vantage points to clarify the type of simulation that is relevant in neuroscience and what goals it may have. Several of the questions in the article are relevant also for the simulation of more limited brain functions. For example, the question if the ability to make a computer simulation of a brain function means that you understand it.

The most thought-provoking questions, however, concern the big (but distant) goal to simulate a whole human brain. Is it possible in principle, given that the brain is embedded in the body and is in constant interaction with it? Is it possible, given that the brain interacts not only with the body but also with a social environment?

Does simulating the brain require that one also simulates the brain’s interaction with the body and the social context in which it operates? Kathinka Evers thinks so. The attempt to simulate the brain is too limited if one does not start out from the fact that the brain is in constant interaction with an environment that constantly changes it.

The brain must be understood (and simulated) as an “experienced brain.”

Suppose that one day one manages to simulate an experienced human brain in intensive interaction with a bodily and social environment. Has one then simulated a brain so well that one created consciousness?

The questions in the article are many and breathtaking – read it!

Pär Segerdahl

We like challenging questions - the ethics blog


Conversations with seemingly unconscious patients

September 23, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogResearch and technology changes us: changes the way we live, speak and think. One area of ​​research that will change us in the future is brain research. Here are some remarkable discoveries about some seemingly unconscious patients; discoveries that we still don’t know how to make intelligible or relate to.

A young woman survived a car accident but got such serious injuries that she was judged to be in a vegetative state, without consciousness. When sentences were spoken to her and her neural responses were measured through fMRI, however, it was discovered that her brain responded equivalently to conscious control subjects’ brains. Was she conscious although she appeared to be in a coma?

To get more clarity the research team asked the woman to perform two different mental tasks. The first task was to imagine that she was playing tennis; the other that she visited her house. Once again the measured brain activation was equivalent to that of the conscious control subjects.

She is not the only case. Similar responses have been measured in other patients who according to international guidelines were unconscious. Some have learned to respond appropriately to yes/no questions, such as, “Is your mother’s name Yolande?” They respond by mentally performing different tasks – let’s say, imagine squeezing their right hand for “yes” and moving all their toes for “no.” Their neural responses are then measured.

There is already technology that connects brain and computer. People learn to use these “neuro-prosthetics” without muscle use. This raises the question if in the future one may be able to communicate with some patients who today would be diagnosed as unconscious.

– Should one then begin to ask these patients about informed consent for different treatments?

Here at the CRB researchers are working with such neuro-ethical issues within a big European research effort: the Human Brain Project. Within this project, Kathinka Evers leads the work on ethical and societal implications of brain research, and Michele Farisco writes his (second) thesis in the project, supervised by Kathinka.

Michele Farisco’s thesis deals with disorders of consciousness. I just read an exciting book chapter that Michele authored with Kathinka and Steven Laureys (one of neuro-scientists in the field):

They present developments in the field and discuss the possibility of informed consent from some seemingly unconscious patients. They point out that informed consent has meaning only if there is a relationship between doctor/researcher and patient, which requires communication. This condition may be met if the technology evolves and people learn to use it.

But it is still unclear, they argue, whether all requirements for informed consent are satisfied. In order to give informed consent, patients must understand what they agree to. This is usually checked by asking patients to describe with their own words what the doctor/researcher communicated. This cannot be done through yes/no-communication via neuroimaging. Furthermore, the patient must understand that the information applies to him or her at a certain time, and it is unclear if these patients, who are detached from the course of everyday life and have suffered serious brain injury, have that understanding. Finally, the patient must be emotionally able to evaluate different alternatives. Also this condition is unclear.

It may seem early to discuss ethical issues related to discoveries that we don’t even know how to make intelligible. I think on the contrary that it can pave the way for emerging intelligibility. A personal reflection explains what I mean.

It is tempting to think that neuroscience must first determine whether the patients above are unconscious or not, by answering “the big question” how consciousness arises and becomes disturbed or inhibited in the brain. Only then can we understand these remarkable discoveries, and only then can practical applications and ethical implications be developed.

My guess is that practical technological applications, and human responses to their use, rather are venues for the intelligibility that is required for further scientific development. A brain does not give consent, but perhaps a seemingly unconscious patient with neuro-prosthesis. How future technology supported communication with such patients takes shape – how it works in practice and changes what we meaningfully can do, say and think – will guide future research. It is on this science-and-technology supported playing field that we might be able to ask and determine what we thought neuroscience had to determine beforehand, and on its own, by answering a “big question.”

After all, isn’t it on this playing field that we now begin to ask if some seemingly unconscious patients are conscious?

Ethics does not always run behind research, developing its “implications.” Perhaps neuro-ethics and neuroscience walk hand in hand. Perhaps neuroscience needs neuro-ethics.

Pär Segerdahl

In dialogue with patients


Two PhD positions at the Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics

March 27, 2013

We are recruiting two new PhD students:

1. PhD position in the field of Research Ethics/Bioethics. This position has two possible research focuses:

2. PhD position in the field of bioethics/philosophy of mind. This position has the following possible research focuses:

  • (a) Conceptual and empirical analyses of the nature and function of consciousness in the light of modern neuroscience and philosophy of mind.
  • (b) How consciousness can be accessed neurotechnologically.
  • (c) Clinical studies of consciousness of patients with disorders of consciousness and ethical analyses of the results.

Read more about the PhD projects and the application in the links above. If you are interested we look forward to receiving your application no later than April 22, 2013.

Pär Segerdahl

We transgress disciplinary borders - the Ethics Blog


Interview with Kathinka Evers

June 5, 2012

One of my colleagues here at CRB, Kathinka Evers, recently returned from Barcelona, where she participated in the lecture series, The Origins of the Human Mind:

PS: Why did you participate in this series?

KE: I was invited by the Centre for Contemporary Culture to present the rise of neuroethics and my views on informed materialism.

PS: Why were you invited to talk on these issues?

KE: My last book was recently translated into Spanish (Quando la materia se despierta), and it has attracted interest amongst philosophers and neuroscientists in the Spanish speaking world. In that book, I extend a materialist theory of mind, called “informed materialism,” to neuroethical perspectives, discussing, for example, free will, self-conceptions and personal responsibility.

PS: In a previous blog post I commented upon Roger Scruton’s critical attitude to neuroscientific analyses of subjects that traditionally belong to the social and human sciences. What’s your opinion on his criticism?

KE: Contemporary neuroscience can enrich numerous areas of social science. But the reverse is also true. The brain is largely the result of socio-cultural influences. Understanding the brain also involves understanding its embodiment in a social context. The social and neurobiological perspectives dynamically interact in our development of a deeper understanding of the human mind, of consciousness, and of human identity.

PS: Do you mean that the criticism presupposes a one-sided view of the development of neuroscience?

KE: I suspect that the criticism is not well-informed, scientifically, since it fails to take this neuro-cultural symbiosis into account. But it is not uncommon for philosophers to take a rather defensive position against neuroscientific attempts to enter philosophical domains.

PS: Was this tension noticeable at the meeting in Barcelona?

KE: Not really. Rather, the debate focused on how interdisciplinary collaborations have at last achieved what the theoretical isolationism of the twentieth century – when philosophy of mind was purely a priori and empirical brain science refused to study consciousness – failed to achieve: the human brain is finally beginning to understand itself and its own mind.

Kathinka Evers has developed a course in neuroethics and is currently drafting a new book (in English) on brain and mind.

Pär Segerdahl

We transgress disciplinary borders - the Ethics Blog


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