New concept of consciousness challenges language

January 31, 2018

Pär SegerdahlA few weeks ago, I recommended an exciting article by Michele Farisco. Now I wish to recommend another article, where Farisco (together with Steven Laureys and Kathinka Evers) argues even more thoroughly for a new concept of consciousness.

The article in Mind & Matter is complex and I doubt that I can do it justice. I have to start out from my own experience. For when Farisco challenges the opposition between consciousness and the unconscious, it resembles something I have written about: the opposition between human and animal.

Oppositions that work perfectly in everyday language often become inapplicable for scientific purposes. In everyday life, the opposition between human and animal is unproblematic. If a child tells us that it saw an animal, we know it was not a human the child saw. For the biologist, however, the idea of ​​the human as non-animal would be absurd. Although it is perfectly in order in everyday language, biology must reject the opposition between human and animal. It hides continuities between us and the other animals.

Farisco says (if I understand him) something similar about neuroscience. Although the opposition between consciousness and the unconscious works in everyday language, it becomes problematic in neuroscience. It hides continuities in the brain’s way of functioning. Neuroscience should therefore view consciousness and the unconscious as continuous forms of the same basic phenomenon in living brains.

If biology talks about the human as one of the animal species, how does Farisco suggest that neuroscience should talk about consciousness? Here we face greater linguistic challenges than when biology considers humans to be animals.

Farico’s proposal is to widen the notion of consciousness to include also what we usually call the unconscious (much like the biologist widens the concept of animals). Farisco thus suggests, roughly, that the brain is conscious as long as it is alive, even in deep sleep or in coma. Note, however, that he uses the word in a new meaning! He does not claim what he appears to be claiming!

The brain works continually, whether we are conscious or not (in the ordinary sense). Most neural processes are unconscious and a prerequisite for consciousness (in the ordinary sense). Farisco suggests that we use the word consciousness for all these processes in living brains. The two states we usually oppose – consciousness and the unconscious – are thus forms of the same basic phenomenon, namely, consciousness in Farisco’s widened sense.

Farisco supports the widened concept of consciousness by citing neuroscientific evidence that I have to leave aside in this post. All I wish to do here is to point out that Farico’s concept of consciousness probably is as logical in neuroscience as the concept of the human as animal is in biology.

Do not let the linguistic challenges prevent you from seeing the logic of Farisco’s proposal!

Pär Segerdahl

Farisco, M., Laureys, S. and Evers, K. 2017. The intrinsic activity of the brain and its relation to levels and disorders of consciousness. Mind and Matter 15: 197-219

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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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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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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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