#WSF18: What Causes Extremism in the Brain?

Why did the World Science Festival organize a talk about the roots of extremism as part of this year’s celebration? Moderator Maria Konnikova explained that, under the current US administration, it is very hard to escape political discussion. With extreme views on both sides, the question of whether we are becoming a more extreme society is something on everyone’s mind.

Where does extremism come from and are we becoming more extreme? Three psychologists and neuroscientists tried to answer these questions and others at “The Roots of Extremism: The Fundamentalist in Your Brain,” a program on the final day of the World Science Festival in New York City. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Jay Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology & neural science at New York University, and Katherine Porterfield, clinical psychologist at the Bellevue/NYU program for Survivors of Torture, discussed extremism and fundamentalism, and how it relates to the brain.

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From left: Jonathan Haidt, Katherine Porterfield, Jay Van Bavel, and moderator Maria Konnikova. Photo: World Science Festival

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Moral Robots: How Close Are We?

world science festival robots
While we have grown accustomed to living and working in a world aided by “smart” devices, there is still a sense of suspicion when we talk about artificial intelligence (AI). Hollywood certainly hasn’t helped, with movies like “The Terminator” and “The Matrix,” but how close are we really to co-existing with autonomous, superintelligent robots?

The robots of today, at least, are not going to take over the world, said cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus one of the panelists at Saturday’s World Science Festival event, “The Moral Math of Robots: Can Life and Death Decisions be Coded?” To assuage any fears right off the bat, he encouraged audience members to watch a bloopers video from a recent DARPA Robotics Challenge. The Terminator, they are not. In fact, their fumbles are kind of endearing.
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Robots as Soldiers and Caretakers

INS Robots in Society

L to R: Ronald C. Arkin, Goldie Nejat, and INS President Barbara Sahakian

The International Neuroethics Society opened its annual meeting last night at AAAS in DC with a thought-provoking public program on robots in society. Though the title conjures up images from the Terminator movies (at least for me), the two speakers avoided wading too far into a futuristic, science fiction universe, and instead focused on the impact of robots in warfare and healthcare, and the ethical considerations involved.

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The Science and Ethics of Moral Enhancement

Can we create a morality pill? And if we can, should we? Scientists at yesterday’s International Neuroethics Society panel on moral enhancement addressed these questions and others about the potential use of hormones such as oxytocin and serotonin to shape social behavior.

Some companies and media outlets have jumped the gun, declaring oxytocin the “moral molecule” or the “love chemical.” If you want to enhance your trustworthiness, an internet search will turn up what is supposedly “oxytocin spray.” But the panelists cautioned about reading too much into these claims, noting that this field is complicated and still in its infancy.

All three panelists, Dana Alliance member Patricia Churchland, Molly Crockett, and Julian Savulescu, seemed to agree that two of the biggest obstacles to the research are: (1) lack of universal definitions for terms such as “morality” and “moral enhancement,” and (2) neurochemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin do not act in isolation, and they shape behavior beyond pro-social aspects.

Crockett suggested a multi-disciplinary collaboration to determine common definitions for morality and related terms. Churchland added that one must keep in mind that moral judgment is not neatly separated from factors such as emotions, reasoning, motives, habits, stress, temperament, age, etc. “Morality is not a module,” she said.

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Oxytocin: Separating Hype from Hope

These days it seems like claims about the hormone oxytocin are everywhere. A quick Google news search of the word “oxytocin” results in recent articles titled everything from “Why do Men Love Breasts? Titillating Theory Explains Release of Neurochemical Oxytocin,” to “Why God Doesn’t Go Away,” to “Can Oxytocin Treat Autism?” Theories linking oxytocin to a range of pro-social and altruistic behaviors has earned it nicknames such as the “love chemical,” “morale molecule,” and “trust hormone.” But are these names rooted in scientific fact?

The Dana Foundation’s latest briefing paper, “One Molecule for Love, Trust, and Morality?” separates hype from hope by delving into the latest oxytocin research and checking in with experts such as neuroethicist Martha Farah, Ph.D., and neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland, Ph.D., both Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives members.

While Farah and Churchland warn of misperceptions brought on by oversimplified reporting, Farah and others also express cautious enthusiasm about the hormone’s potential applications.

“There is a lot of hype out there,” Farah confers. But she is quick to add: “Oxytocin research does deserve the attention it’s been getting, because it represents a beautiful example of how neuroscience can illuminate important aspects of psychology and even what one might call the ‘human experience.’”

Farah is not alone in her cautious enthusiasm about oxytocin. As research on oxytocin has exploded–more than 40 clinical trials are underway investigating oxytocin as a potential treatment for a range of behavioral and psychiatric disorders–some scientists are ringing a warning bell about how little is really known about the brain chemical everyone suddenly seems to love.

Read the briefing paper here.

–Ann L. Whitman

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