Tomorrow’s World Today: The 2016 International Neuroethics Society Meeting

Guest blog by Moheb Costandi.

am16-square-regearlyIn November, some of the world’s leading bioethicists and neuroscientists will convene in San Diego for the annual meeting of the International Neuroethics Society (INS).

The 2016 meeting marks the tenth anniversary of the INS. In that time, we have seen unprecedented advances in neuroscience and, consequently, a plethora of new technologies developed to further our understanding of the brain, and to fix it when it goes wrong, have emerged.

Even so, our understanding of this complex organ is far from complete. We still know very little about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, for example, and it is widely believed that the incidence of this debilitating neurodegenerative condition will reach epidemic proportions in the years to come. Similarly, the global burden of mental health issues is expected to grow, and has been projected to affect 15% of the world’s population by the year 2020–disabling more people than AIDS, heart disease, traffic accidents, and wars combined.

Faced with these grim prospects, the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, and other countries have launched, or are set to launch, national large-scale neuroscience initiatives. Leading figures from some of these initiatives will discuss their country’s brain research efforts and the ethical issues they raise in a panel discussion and breakout sessions at the INS meeting.

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What Makes Us Who We Are: Neuroscience and the Self

The idea of the mind is a relatively modern concept. In medieval times, it was believed that people were divided in two parts, the physical body and the spiritual soul. With the emergence of the scientific revolution and thinkers such as John Locke, the mind and secular life became an important topic in discussions about self-awareness. Since then, we have been trying to understand not only what it means to possess a mind, but also the neuroscience behind it.

That was part of the message at “My Neurons, My Self,” a panel discussion at the World Science Festival in New York City. Three eminent neuroscientists and a philosopher provided insight into the “mind-brain” problem, focusing on what defines the self. “What we don’t have yet is a way of bridging mental experience with the brain in a coherent model that allows for mental intention; we still are a ways off from solving the mind-brain problem,” said George Makari, M.D., director of the Institute of the History of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, in introducing the panel.

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Who Am I? An Exploration of Self

On Thursday, April 28, experts from the sciences and humanities converged at the New York Academy of Sciences for an enlightening conversation about the notion of self. The sold-out event, “A Self Fulfilling Prophecy: Linking Belief to Behavior,” was the fourth discussion of a six-part series “Perspectives on the Self: Conversations on Identity and Consciousness” that seeks to address the question, what is the self, exactly? Moderated by Esther Sternberg from NIMH, the panel included Simon Critchley, The New School University; Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida; and V.V. Raman, Rochester Institute of Technology.

This panel was tasked with answering the questions: where is self in the brain? Is there an exact spot? And how is it developed? Panelists largely agreed that the self is not formed in isolation in the brain, but rather is a social entity, shaped through interactions and relationships. Self is “as much the overall effect of our neural network as our interactions with the outside world,” said Raman.

Defining the relationship between the brain and the self is an ongoing conversation in the science community. Some, such as Gallagher, a professor of cognitive sciences and philosophy, postulate that self may not be in the brain, but be “more distributed in the body and environment.” He encourages the use of multiple disciplines to explore the idea of self, believing that using only one offers an incomplete picture. Other scientists, such as neurobiologist and Dana Alliance member Joe LeDoux, believe the self and personality to be interchangeable, derived from synaptic connectivity. “We are our synapses,” writes Ledoux in his book The Synaptic Self.

Contributing to this debate, some brain researchers are taking the question of self straight to the labs. As reported in our 2010 briefing paper “The Unhealthy Ego,” scientists are using brain imaging and self-reference experiments to study the neurobiology of self, linking it to the medial prefrontal cortex.

Clearly there is not a working definition of self, neither in the sciences nor among other disciplines such as philosophy and religion. Critchley, a professor of philosophy, warned of allowing science to extend itself over all phenomena, suggesting instead that practical ideas of self (a more casual sort of definition) may be separate from rigorously scientific interpretations.

For more ideas about sense of self, please read my previous blog, “People as Puppets.”

–Ann L. Whitman

People as puppets

The Rubin Museum is nearing the end of its fourth Brainwave series, and one of the final discussions paired neuroscientist and Dana Alliance member, Rodolfo Llinás, New York University, with puppeteer Roman Paska. Llinás actually requested to be paired with a puppeteer, so that the two could dissect sense of self.

Llinás did not waste any time letting the audience know that he, in fact, views people as puppet-like, explaining that “reality is ultimately a dreamlike state.” This theory stems from the idea that our brains, responsible for our consciousness, control our bodies in much the same way a puppeteer controls the movements of his/her puppet.

When asked how he views his puppets in relation to himself, Paska said that puppeteers view their puppets as extensions of themselves, almost as an amputee might feel about a prosthetic limb. Performers become so in tuned to the movements of the puppets through rigorous practice that it feels natural.

The ease of movements learned through training is because of action patterns formed in the brain, Llinás said. These action patterns are responsible for our being able to move our faces while talking without having to think about it. Or, for me, how I can walk to work in almost a dream state because I’ve done it so many times; I just know the route without having to concentrate on it. For Paska, this learned and repeated movement allows him to become “devoid of self-consciousness of producing the movement.”

Much of the evening’s discussion revolved around the art of puppetry, such as how people in Western cultures view and use puppets as compared with people in Eastern cultures and how Paska takes care of his puppets. At the end, the audience was treated to an amateur performance by Dr. Llinás, in which, with the help of strobe lights and a “scary” skeleton Halloween mask with glowing red eyes, he showed us the illusion of detached eyes from the mask.

Brainwave continues through April 20. And, calling all chocolate lovers, on April 17 chocolate master Jacques Torres will be speaking with Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David J. Linden about pleasure. Samples will be distributed to the audience. Yum.

–Ann Whitman

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