Archive for April, 2014

See what I mean about consent being flimsy?

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Not about the brain at all, but it illustrates the point I made in my last post. Belgian physician calls for euthanasia to be applied without the need for such cumbersome requirements as, you know, the patient actually agreeing to it. It’s in French, but Google translate makes it partially intelligible.

Mind-reading, one step closer…

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Whoa, this is an interesting study. Just out in NeuroImage, Yale undergraduate (undergraduate, mind) Alan S. Cowen, along with supervisor Marvin M. Chun and postdoc Brice A. Kuhl, developed an algorithm for capturing the features of human faces mathematically, then observed evoked brain activity while people were viewing those faces, correlating the neural activity in various regions with the face features. They subsequently used brain activity to reconstruct and identify, from the brain scans alone, which of another set of faces people were looking at. Freaky, eh?

This study goes well beyond previous studies in which researchers managed to identify what people were looking at on the basis of their brain activity, because distinguishing among different human faces requires a lot more sophistication than distinguishing, say, between an animal and a building. The study also stands out because it used brain activation from a large number of brain regions, rather than just from the parts of the brain representing the early, elemental stages of visual processing. Faces, because of their behavioral importance, evoke strong neural responses in various areas outside of those dedicated exclusively to early-stage visual processing.

Listen, it’ll be a while yet before anyone can read your mind, but it’s starting to look like such a thing may be possible in the future—and maybe not even that far into the future. All this highlights the increasingly dire need for a robust neuro-ethics. As in other areas of scientific inquiry—put perhaps uniquely so when dealing with the seat of human reason, emotion and judgement—it needs to be not only a question of what can be done, in a technical sense, but of what ought to be done, or ought not to be done. We now have studies (I’ve reviewed some of them here!) that show that simple brain stimulation can alter people’s preferences, increase or decrease the likelihood that they will behave in an altruistic manner, make them self-focused or other-focused, evoke or bury or alter memories, &c., &c. How long until there are “clinical” applications of this, in which people’s preferences, judgements, even qualities of moral decision-making can be “treated” by those who are more correct and more enlightened than they are?

I find all of this very unsettling, because our culture, perhaps more than any other in human history, is completely adrift with respect to the meaning and foundation of ethics. We have much-vaunted technical know-how, but at the same time we’re awash in a corrosive postmodern soup of relativism, which the naïve imagine means that everyone is free to make his or her own reality, but which really means that everyone is free to subscribe to the reality established by the most powerful among us, for their own purposes. In one absolutely bone-chilling example, last year we had academics making the serious proposal, in a serious journal of “medical” “ethics”, that infants whose parents don’t want them ought to be able to be killed, and that this killing should henceforward have the imprimatur of correctness from our priestly class of professional academics. “Post-birth abortion”, they call it. The old word for it—murder—was much more straightforward, and more honest.

What passes for ethics today rests entirely on the extremely flimsy foundation of “consent”, which is laughable even when you don’t consider the fact that “consent” can now in principle be altered by the application of a mild electric current or a train of magnetic pulses over the right brain areas. Just at the time when we are most in need of sober, well-grounded ethical thinking, we find ourselves incapable of doing anything like that sort of thinking.