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Neuroethics: A Useful Perspective on Life

Anthony Paul
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045

The Ethical Brain, a book on the topic of neuroethics by Michael Gazzaniga describes a plethora of morally difficult situations coupled with developing neurological concepts. Issues such as abortion stimulate responses from both logical and emotional sources, and Gazzaniga applies neuroscience to the reasoning process in order to exhibit a possible viewpoint formed from scientific conclusions on such issues. Each scenario presented throughout the novel brandishes an obvious and anticipated emotional response, as well as scientific information aimed to devise a solution with logic. In many cases, these two strategies conflict, creating a chasm of ethical deliberation presented to the audience which they may overcome and form a strong stance on. Neuroethics contrives many interesting angles from which to view complex ethical decisions, however it may not form a complete basis of thought due to the undeniable emotional involvement in decision-making, the misinterpretation of neurological findings, and the social unpreparedness certain abilities of neuroscience boast.

Emotion often clashes with logical conclusions, especially when dissecting sensitive ethical dilemmas. Emotional response to stimulus defines key aspects of human nature, and situations involving core values of the human experience surely must overflow with emotional reactions. When presented with the dilemma of end of life decisions concerning a mentally compromised parent, Gazzaniga presents that, “it is clear that Dresser has never walked the neurology wards, has never cared for or studied patients with the disease in question. If she had, I think she would be more confident that the endstate demented human is aware of little or nothing”. This rather cold approach to the scenario perpetuates the black and white deductive properties of a neuroscience-based thought process. Families of patients do not have an issue with the logic of such a statement, however this does not suggest a confident decision on the behalf of science. Those close to patients, and most intensely those in the position of the decision, experience many facets of the emotional spectrum such as depression, anxiety, and distress (Hosseinrezaei et al, 2014). The viability and physical condition of a patient does not affect the emotional stressors that families feel, nor does it relieve the pain or personal objectives of those deciding whether or not to end the life of a demented loved one. A decision concluded solely from logical reasoning may have damaging effects to the coping mechanisms of loved ones and should reasonably allow for the implementation of these often difficult to navigate emotions. This hybrid form of decision-making restores more comfort and confidence in families aiming to make the undesirable truth feel less forced.

While neuroscience may be trustworthy and credible, at its core the study of the brain simplifies to a collection of data and findings, which can be misinterpreted. Gazzaniga introduces the concept of polygraph tests and other ideas based around forming real life conclusions from data gathered in the brain. He explains that “when interpretations of physical tests are reported by either the prosecution or the defense, it will seem that a representation of a pattern of brain activity corresponds to an inevitable action. Nothing could be further from the truth” (Gazzaniga 146). The dangerous precedent of assumptions based off of neurological data presents a number of concerns, chiefly the relationship between thought and action. Intellectual evidence cannot always hold the same level of truth that physical evidence can due to the vast array of neural connections and possible stimuli. One may use supplemental neurological findings that support specific predispositions, but again they may not solely influence a decision because a person’s thoughts and mental processes may only be so responsible. Polygraphs can only sense neural activity present during the test, often leading to false-positives that may have very serious implications (Cino, 2018). Quantitative observations found in polygraph examinations simply relay to investigators the current mental state of the participant, meaning that a nervous participant with withered confidence may give off the appearance of deceit, even if they are being completely honest. Such a fragile test should never form a complete basis of evidence in any case and should be utilized instead as supporting information that can be brought together in the formation of a final decision.

Neuroscience flaunts a wide variety of abilities and a seemingly endless path of progress, which may manifest as many problems as it aims to solve. In order to exemplify such a concern Gazzaniga soberly states, With the pill, or the more extreme gene transplant, you too can now be a Michael Jordan!”. The advent of neurological enhancement entices those left behind genetically who yearn for vigorous self-improvement, but this thirst for perfection implies a truly unnatural deviation from billion-year-old biological trends. For those willing to experiment, “modafinil produces cognitive‐enhancing effects in healthy individuals, mostly in higher executive functions such as planning and decision‐making. Modafinil also has positive effects on mood” (Savulich et al, 2016). This race to human perfection fails to respect the progression of social Darwinism and reasonably threatens those who wish to remain naturally composed. Though a logically attractive offer, modafinil and similar drugs pose social disruption on a large scale. Countless people in the world would either be unable or unwilling to begin such medication, falling behind in the human population and inevitably failing because of it. Not only will this cause a great divide among progressive and old-fashioned people, it may further skew the socio-economic differences among various groups. Wealthier people will now have even more opportunities at success, and poorer individuals will lose a very important advantage that helps keep some level of equality among the two contrasts. 

Neuroethics possesses an exciting and emerging lens to gaze through and can be infinitely helpful in many cases; however, it may not alone assume the duty of ethical and moral decision-making due to the direct effect emotion applies to moral dilemmas, the misrepresentation of useful but sometimes arbitrary neurological data, and the outwardly powerful social implications that neurological manipulation presents. Neuroscience is most helpful and safe when used as a supplementary tool that can illuminate certain areas of confusion, instead of an exact and unwavering certainty that may be applied where wished. Moderation is the chief value that neuroscience should firmly adhere to in order to give room and importance to less objective aspects of the human experience such as emotion or intention, facets that a black and white view of the brain easily seem to brush over.


Works Cited

Cino, J. G. (2018). Is a polygraph a reliable lie detector? Phys Soc Sci, 1. https://phys.org/news/2018-10-polygraph-reliable-detector.html


Gazzaniga, M. S. (2005). The ethical brain. Washington, DC, US: Dana Press.


Hosseinrezaei, H., Pilevarzadeh, M., Amiri, M., Rafiei, H., Taghati, S., Naderi, M., Moradalizadeh, M., Askarpoor, M. (2014). Psychological Symptoms in Family Members of Brain Death Patients in Intensive Care Unit in Kerman, Iran. Glob J Health Sci, 6(2), pp. 203-208. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4825222/

Savulich, G., Piercy, T., Bruhl, AB., Fox, C., Suckling, J., Rowe, JB., O’Brien, JT., Sahakian, BJ. (2016). Focusing the Neuroscience and Societal Implications of Cognitive Enhancers. American Society for Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics. https://ascpt.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/cpt.457


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