Neuroethics: The Dilemmas of Brain Research

Henry T. Greely in a recent article Neuroethics: The Neuroscience Revolution, Ethics, and the Law paints a gloomy picture of our posthuman future. In this paper he breaks down the revolution in neuroethics into four domains: prediction, litigation, confidentiality and privacy, and patents. He tells us it is the responsibility of any ethicist to understand the ethical, legal, and social consequences of new technologies to look disproportionately for troublesome consequences. Neuroethics is specific to the new branches of neurosciences.

Ethical problems revolving around neuroscientific research have induced the emergence of a new discipline termed neuroethics, which discusses issues such as prediction of disease, psychopharmacological enhancement of attention, memory or mood, and technologies such as psychosurgery, deep-brain stimulation or brain implants. Such techniques are capable of affecting the individual’s sense of privacy, autonomy and identity. Moreover, reductionist interpretations of neuroscientific results challenge notions of free will, responsibility, personhood and the self which are essential for western culture and society. They may also gradually change psychiatric concepts of mental health and illness. These tendencies call for thorough, philosophically informed analyses of research findings and critical evaluation of their underlying conceptions of humans. The stakes are high, for it entails nothing less and nothing more that the core values that have guided since the Enlightenment.

Max Horkheimer once stated:

The crisis of reason is manifested in the crisis of the individual, as whose agency it has developed. The illusion that traditional philosophy has cherished about the individual and about reason—the illusion of their eternity—is being dispelled. The individual once conceived of reason exclusively as an instrument of the self. Now he experiences the reverse of this self-deification. The machine has dropped the driver; it is racing blindly into space. At the moment of consummation, reason has become irrational and stultified. The theme of this time is self-preservation, while there is no self to preserve.2

That is the central point of neuroscience in its naturalized context: the Self is a useless concept, the whole gamut of concepts that relate to our legal, scientific, literary, philosophical theories and practices based on the Western notion of the Individual are being called into question. Some say the Enlightenment project is over, and with it the rational value systems that have guided our human activity both publically and privately are no longer legitimate. What will replace it? As we move toward what call, the ‘Singularity’, what will become of our philosophies, sciences, religions? Are we entering something new, or is there an underlying connection to our old modernity that still seems to surface below the threshold? Instead of postmodernity, are we instead seeing a new modernity resurging in our midst? And along with it are these new technologies of biogenetics, neurotech imaging and electromagnetic devices, etc. becoming part of some new modernist world view. Some say we are becoming posthuman, others transhuman, what if any are the connections and divergences of such terms? Can neuroethics which specializes in the new sciences of the brain and their technologies give us certain helpful answers?

The notion of predicting future behavior has been around with us for a while now. One only needs to remember Philip K. Dick’s story The Minority Report adapted to the Steven Speilberg’s movie of that same name.  In it a new form of law and order had come about in which the programmatic infiltration of future crimes was cut short with a new system. Precrime is a system which punishes people with imprisonment for murders they would have committed, had they not been prevented. This method has replaced the traditional system of discovering a murder and its perpetrator(s) after the crime, then issuing punishment for a completed action. As one character says in the introduction to the story, “punishment was never much of a deterrent and could scarcely have afforded comfort to a victim already dead”.

Of course in the story and movie these systems were developed out of the use of certain medically defined idiots, or precogs: The system of predicting the future by reports is performed by three mutants known as “precogs” because of their precognitive abilities by which they can see up to two weeks into the future. The precogs sit in a room which is perpetually in half-darkness, constantly talking nonsense to themselves that is incoherent until it is analyzed by a computer and converted into predictions of the future. This information is assembled by the computer into the form of symbols before being transcribed onto conventional punch cards which are ejected into various coded slots: when cards are produced, they appear simultaneously at Precrime and the army general headquarters, in order to prevent corruption. (wiki)

Now unlike the fantastic world of P.K. Dick or Steven Spielberg the new neuroscientific sciences hold out a more gloomy picture that these two pioneers and visionaries could have foreseen. With new technical apparatuses being developed everyday we are discovering more and more about the three-pound lump in our skull: the brain. The new imaging technologies are beginning to reveal the very structure of the living brain according to many neuroscientists, through technologies such as computer-assisted tomography (CAT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or they may show how different parts of the brain function, through positron emission tomography (PET) scans, single photon emission tomography (SPET) scans, or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

For Greely these new technologies in themselves are neutral and value free, but the uses to which these technologies are put is the double-edged sword of our modern Damocles. Predictive diagnostics is a part of any medical practitioners  arsenal of tools and analysis, so that the use of these new imaging technologies could be used to benefit society or through both economic, law enforcement, military and/or intelligence agencies to curb illegal acts. As he states it the issues raised by predictions based on neuroscience are often similar to those raised by genetic predictions.

First, a claimed ability to predict may not, in fact, exist. Many associations between genetic variations and various diseases have been claimed, only  to fail the test of replication. Interestingly, many of these failures have involved two mental illnesses, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Second, and more important, the strength of the predictions can vary enormously. For some genetic diseases, prediction is overwhelmingly powerful.

Finally, the use of genetic predictions has proven controversial, both in medical practice and in social settings. Much of the debate about the uses of human genetics has concerned its use to predict the future health or traits of patients, insureds, employees, fetuses, or embryos. Neuroscience seems likely to raise many similar issues. (ibid.)

One of the side effect of such neuroscientific predictive analysis  using neuroimaging technologies might easily lead to predictions with greater or lesser accuracy, of a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, but such imaging tests may be inaccurate, may present information patients find difficult to evaluate, and may provide information of dubious value and some harm.(ibid.) One darker aspect of these new technologies unlike drug, biologicals, and medical devices is that it does not fall under the FDA’s regulative mechanism. At present, neuroscience-based testing, particularly through neuroimaging using existing (approved) devices seems to be entirely unregulated except,  to a very limited extent, by malpractice law. One important policy question should be whether to regulate such tests, through government action or by professional self-regulation.(ibid.) Yet, one wonders if the FDA or any government regulatory entity truly has our full public interests at heart, or if the larger corporate/government hyperobject or assemblage uses such regulatory agencies to benefit their ulterior designs?

From the legal angle one can imagine neuroscience tests that show a convicted defendant might be particularly likely to commit dangerous future crimes by showing that he has, for example, poor control over his anger, his aggressiveness,  or his sexual urges. The legal system might then intervene using approved neuropharmocologies. For example, two different  papers have already linked criminality to variations in the gene for monoamine oxidase A, a protein that plays an important role in the brain (ibid.). As these new sciences and the pharmacology manufactures open new economic markets we can see the use of these new neurochems as part of the legal systems arsenal of tools to both combat and predict future crimes as well as transform behaviors of existing criminals. But will they stop there? Could they also begin using such products on consumers to change the fundamental world of economics, politics, and social relations?

Even now corporations and educational institutions are using an old form of technology in a new way: the MCAT, that claims to test knowledge rather than aptitude use the applicant’s tested knowledge as a predictor of her ability to function well in school, either because she has that background knowledge or because her acquisition of the knowledge demonstrates her abilities. The Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®) is a standardized, multiple-choice  examination designed to assess the examinee’s problem solving, critical  thinking, and knowledge of science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine. Scores are reported in Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning,  and Biological Sciences. It’s been around for about 80 years, but as the neurosciences advance it is conceivable that they could provide other methods of testing ability or aptitude. Of course, the standard questions of the accuracy of those tests would apply. Along with the already existing arsenal testing, of ACT, SAT, LSAT, MCAT, and GRE among others, we could see a new form of segregation taking place not based on race but on knowledge: brain power. Will the smart pill of the future exclude the great majority from higher education? Will the schools, corporations, military, etc. begin to exclude people through definitions of intelligence and aptitude based on neuropower?

What of the newer biotechnologies? Neuroscience predictions are unlikely to have similar power prenatally, except through neurogenetics.   It is possible that neuroimaging or other non-genetic neuroscience tests might be performed on a fetus during pregnancy. Will we then be able to manipulate through new gene therapies changes to a fetuses brain, improve many variables that would provide certain future predictive pathways for the child’s development process? Will this be the new neurodeterminism of the future?

Greely goes into the predictive legal, bias, elicited memory, and other litigated uses that the new neurosciences might enact. Yet, the biggest domain that most of us might fear is the area of privacy. “Neuroscience may lead to the generation of sensitive information about individual patients or research subjects, information whose distribution         they may wish to see restricted” (ibid.). Privacy issues might also arise as a result of neuroscience through unconsented and inappropriate intrusions into a person’s life. Intrusions by the government, law enforcement, intelligence community, etc. may become a day to day aspect of our lives, and neuroscience just one more took in their arsenal of probes as privacy slowly vanishes and the individual as Deleuze predicted become nothing more than a ‘dividual’ a data source, a bit in a larger power-knowledge nexus to be marke, divided, counted, manipulated and controlled.

Greely asks us to imagine a scenario:

Imagine an intervention that allowed an outsider to control the actions or motions, and possibly even the speech, emotions,  or thoughts, of a person. Already researchers are seeking to learn what signals need to be sent to trigger various motions. Dr. Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University has been working to determine what neural activity  triggers particular motions in rats and in monkeys and he hopes to be able to stimulate it artificially. One goal is to trigger the implanted electrodes and have the monkey’s arm move in a predictable and controlled fashion. The potential benefits of this research are enormous, particularly to people with spinal cord injuries or other interruptions in their motor neurons. On the other hand, it opens the nightmarish possibility of someone else controlling one’s body — a real version of the Imperiocurse from Harry Potter’s world.(ibid.)

In the next horror scenario he asks: What if your actual thoughts could be patented? What if corporations not only patented and owned your genetic profile, but owned the rights to your neuropatterns as well? “Neural pattern patents would  seem susceptible to some of the same attacks as hubristic efforts,” he states, “to patent human neural processes or even human thoughts. I suspect, however, that an ironically technical difference between the two kinds of patents will limit the controversy in neuroscience” (ibid.). As he states it:

Neural pattern patents would differ from gene patents in that there is  no composition of matter to be patented. The claim would be to certain  patterns used for certain purposes. The pattern itself is not material — it is not a structure or a molecule — and so should not be claimable as a “composition of matter.” Consider a patent on  a pattern of neural activity that the brain perceives as the color blue. A researcher might patent the use of the pattern to tell if someone was  seeing blue or perhaps to allow a person whose retina did not perceive  blue to “see” blue. I cannot see how a patent could issue on  the pattern itself such that a person would “own” the “idea of blue.” Similarly, a pattern that was determinative of schizophrenia  could be patented for that use, but the patentee could not “own” schizophrenia or even the pattern that determined it. If a researcher created a pattern by altering cells, then he could patent, as a composition of matter, the altered cells, perhaps defined in part by the pattern they  created. Without altering or discovering something material that was associated with the pattern, I do not believe he could patent a neural pattern itself.   The fact that neural pattern patents will be patents to uses of the patterns, not for the patterns themselves, may well prevent the kinds of controversies that have attended gene patents.(ibid.)

Of course these are all tame and hypothetical, speculative examples, but one can imagine the darker, more nefarious uses that a military-industrial complex with plenty of government and corporate funding might do with such powerful patents. In his conclusion he states the obvious: “If even a small fraction of the issues discussed above come to pass,  neuroscience will have broad effects on our society and our legal system”. Yet, if we can imagine the ability of a scientist to plant the ability to “see blue” in a persons brain, what about the nefarious uses that a black ops funded government intelligence of military agency might use this same technology? Instead of planting blue, would the old notion of planting images of a hypothetical assassination come to mind: the new Manchurian Candidate? Or, what about the erasure or elimination of images from the brain: if a scientist could add to the brain, it could also eliminate and delete images from the brain. This opens a whole new Pandora’s box… but, isn’t this just what there affirming in the use of new neuropharmacological drugs in post-traumatic syndrome therapies? What if they did this to whole societies or groups, what if they erased certain memories and replaced them with alternate memories, created false memories, developed and reconstructed society in a planned programmatic way? Is this the new brave world coming at us? Dystopia on steroids?

We might laugh at such notions as the thoughts of some demented madman or science fiction writer, but as we move into this unregulated future scenario one begins to wonder if good and evil are themselves beginning to blur and merge into each other and that a time will come when these scientific practices will become naturalized along with the underpinning ideology that supports it. Will we in a few years forget this was once an impossible dream, or impossible possible, and wake up one day and find that it is all too real?

In this impossible possible realm will the future of humanity change to the point that even education and child rearing will become a thing of the past, that parents and educators instead of teaching children will instead use new neruotechnics to graft knowledge onto the brain thereby eliminating the need of our current institutions of learning: obsolete books, seminars, etc. Will the encyclopedic universum be applied through medical procedures as harmless as a flue shot is today? Will such operations be available to all or only to those that can afford such knowledge graftings? Will the vast majority of humankind become subhuman neuroslaves at the service of elites who now get their daily dose of news, information, etc. through neuralimplant technologies? Instead of mediatainment we have neurotainment the totalizing force of neuromedia instantaneously remapping our neural cortex moment by moment with updates on current events, science, knowledge, etc. And if they can perform this trick, then why not allow for the reverse engineering of data, eliminating certain data sets and rewiring the brain for cooperative behaviors in a sort of global infosphere of happy citizens. The socialization of the empire of mind as the dream of globalization writ with neuroscience. One could go on… but dystopia never looked so happy as this.

One need not worry, if we look at the past uses that such pseudo-sciences as the Eugenics movement perpetrated with both Government and private business funding in both America and the German Nazi movement, we can well imagine to what uses the new neurosciences might be put in the hands of a nerfarious government. Look at such strange notions that are already being promoted in what is termed transhumanism, not to be confused with posthumanism. I’ll take a look at the neuroscience connection in transhumanism in as I wander the web in search of strange new applications of neurosciences in the world today.

As Lily E. Kay said in the conclusion of her study of genetics and how it grew out of the early Eugenics movement with funding from the Rockefellers:

Current discourse on genetic engineering technologies often characterizes these developments as a natural consequence of the theoretical research that took place during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, a logical evolution from the pure to the applied. The lessons from this book imply the reverse: that from its inception around 1930, the molecular biology program was defined and conceptualized in terms of technological capabilities and social possibilities. Representations of life within the new biology were a priori predicated on interventions that, in turn, aimed from the start at reshaping vital phenomena and social processes. Constructed within the protein paradigm, these objectives were reformulated after 1953 around the concept of the DNA “master molecule.” Molecular biology was mission-oriented basic research. The ends and means of biological engineering were inscribed into the Rockefeller Foundation’s molecular biology program, and eugenic goals played a significant role in its design. The program, in turn, formed a key element in the Foundation’s new agenda, “Science of Man.” a cooperative venture between the natural, medical, and social sciences. This agenda sought to develop a comprehensive science of social control and a rational basis for human engineering. It was a scientific and a cultural enterprise shaped by the historical contingencies of the tumultuous era of the 1920s-1950s.1

Can we expect anything different in the use and abuse of the neurosciences? The key here in her discourse is how all this is now being presented in a naturalized context, as if science was a purely natural theoretic enterprise devoid of any ethical or social consequences as to how its supposed objective knowledge is put to use. Do we not already see the same thing happening now?  If the molecular biology program was defined and conceptualized in terms of technological capabilities and social possibilities, what of the new neurosciences? What is the hidden agenda behind so much economic investment form both corporate and government intrusion into this for the military, consumer, medical, legal, etc. institutional uses? And is this new Transhumanist ideology driving a new eugenics program based on such sciences? So many questions, so little time….


1. Lily E. Kay. The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology (Monographs on the History & Philosophy of Biology) (Kindle Locations 4547-4554). Kindle Edition.
2. Horkheimer, Max (2013-04-16). Eclipse Of Reason (Kindle Locations 1844-1849). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.

stay tuned…

5 thoughts on “Neuroethics: The Dilemmas of Brain Research

  1. These last few posts scare me more than any Ligotti short story. This is some truly, truly horrific shit. Keep posting these, though. If an apocalyptic event occurs in my lifetime and I lose my nerve trying to off myself, I’ll need some inspiration.


    • What’s scary is that we know so little? What of the things going on under the cover so to speak? What of the supposed black ops experiments off the record that we know are still going on? Hell I’ve barely scratched the surface in a few searches for a week on this crap… I get a feeling there are darker things going on than any of us want to believe, that’s the scary thing…

      For every gain and benefit there always seem to be this dual mirror effect of the abuses to which these technologies can be put and usually are… apocalypse? No this is neurolypse – the reconstruction of humanity at the core: the brain. Scott Bakker has only given us the tip of the iceberg in Neuropath, these other guys in the military-industrial and intelligence empires are enacting it on a vast scale.


      • I remember just sitting there after finishing the last page of Neuropath, staring blankly into space, a heavy feeling…no, more like an EMPTY feeling, a heavy emptiness, just weighing down my entire sense of being/Being. I really hope I die before any of this shit gets to the point where free voices have their brains infiltrated and begin speaking from a place alien to the electrochemical brainsoup that considered itself free.

        I mean, there’d be no real difference, vis a vis “freedom”, but a state or corporate agency taking over a canine’s brain, much less an ape’s, much less a homo sapiens specifically…that’s like an additional layer of non-free on top of the regular “big bang -> star formation -> planetary accretion -> conditions for life -> abiogenesis -> life -> life with brains -> brains that think they’re unified ‘selves’ -> ‘selves’ that think they have metacognition” non-free. We’re not free enough as it is without rich white heterosexist cismales fucking with us.


  2. Fuck. As I read all this stuff on your blog (I’ve just been manically catching up on the last 2 months’ worth of posts) I can’t help but feel a profound sense of dissatisfaction. Is it my bubble getting burst (the reality of my blind brain) or something else? Yes, of course we are far more fallible than we would like to admiy and our ideas of free will don’t quite add up to something as substantial as we might have hoped for. Yet, I rage. Do I suffer from some neurological condition that primes me to dream of the end of capitalism? Am I just enmeshed in social or cultural assemblages that cause me to think and behave the way I do? Am I just getting manipulated by those around me as I manipulate others? None of us really doing what we want or having anything close to the level of choice about anything we do that we might imagine we have? Perhaps all that can exist is a pathetic residual anger. The afterglow of a consciousness that is able, just about, to grasp its profound imprisonment, its bondage, its own delusional faith in its own autonomy. Oh how I love rage. It is rage that makes me feel human. It is my ability to feel rage inside and maintain a poker face that reminds me that I am playing a game. You haven’t caught me yet! I am not yet a complete automaton! Fuck that! I am not a faulty part of a mega-machine. The diagnosis of non-conformity is the expression of abstract rationality of a control society. Not some absolute truth. I am a spanner in the fucking machine. In this machine. Oh I could imagine other machines that I could happily be a part of. Hell we always have been dividuals; multicellular, interdependent, continuously composed and re composed. I don’t have a problem with that. There is hope and power in that too… But not this fucking machine! Not any more!


    • Actually you put your foot on it: it’s not consciousness, its our affective relations, our sociality and ethical investments that we are dispositional toward that mark us out as affective beings not conscious beings. Or, as Deleuze might have said, and did: “We are desiring machines!”


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