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Computer artwork of a side view of a healthy male brain.

What moral dilemmas will arise from our newfound abilities to peer into the workings of the human mind?

Photograph by Pasieka, Science Photo Library/Corbis

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published December 18, 2013

Advances in our understanding of the brain have turned neuroscience into one of the hottest frontiers in research, and in ethics. (See "Beyond the Brain.")

On Wednesday, the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues met to discuss the moral implications of brain science. The bioethics experts met at the request of President Barack Obama, who earlier this year called for the start of a $100 million federal Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

Obama asked the bioethics council to look into what sort of moral dilemmas might arise from the newfound abilities to peer into the workings of the human mind promised by his brain-mapping proposal, and by neuroscience overall.

What are the big questions? We asked Hank Greely, a bioethics and genetics expert at Stanford University's Law School, what he sees as being the five big questions in neuroscience. Here are his insights:

1. Prediction: using neuroscience to predict peoples' fate or actions.

We are spending a lot of research dollars on the question of whether Dad, or I, will get Alzheimer's. What is going to happen when we can really predict that? There will be tremendous implications for families and the medical system, in terms of intervention or treatment.

Another question is crime. What about when we can tell whose brains indicate they are more likely to commit or recommit a crime when people are released from jail? Who is going to recommend or deny a brain scan for every criminal case?

Most likely, these brain results will just be added to other evidence in criminal cases. But if neuroscience adds yet another predictive element to when releases [from prison occur] or sentences end, it will have big effects on preventive retention or preventive therapy for the incarcerated.

2. Mind reading: using neuroscience as a lie detector or to see emotional states.

When I first started saying "mind reading," I thought a lot of my neuroscientist friends would object. But many of them say, yes, that is right, it is like that. A study involving MIT undergraduates was able to tell when they were visualizing a face or a place with 85 percent accuracy, for example. That's pretty good.

Where this will really make a difference is in contacting quadriplegics with the most severe paralysis—"locked in" individuals. We will be able to put people thought to have been in a persistent vegetative state in a [brain] scanner and try to talk to them.

Lie detection raises a host of legal, ethical, and social questions. Only one company is left doing this—NoLieMRI. They are seen as problematic because they don't publish their methods or results. But there is a lot of interest in the technology from the Defense Department, which wants to move away from the polygraph to other ways to do lie detection.

In court, where you will probably first see mind reading is with disability claims—whether people are really feeling pain for Social Security disability claims for lower back pain. Hundreds of thousands of people are making these claims. Some perhaps aren't really in pain. We don't have a good way to tell the difference, but if we did, that would matter.

3. Responsibility: using neuroscience to determine whether people have free will.

I have some neuroscientists who think the effect of their science will be to make the court system disappear. It will show that people have no real "free will" and that people are not truly responsible for their actions. "My brain made me do it" … I don't know any lawyers who believe this will happen.

But there is one particular case, which took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, of a 40-year-old man who suddenly became interested in pornography and moved to child pornography and then groped his 12-year-old stepdaughter. The Tuesday before his sentencing he complained of headaches, couldn't read, he blacked out. And they took him to the emergency room.

They found a tumor the size of a chicken egg on a part of his brain called the left frontal lobe [implicated in studies as being involved with judgment and cognition]. They removed the tumor and the impulses went away.

Ten months later he tells his probation officer that the impulses are coming back. They x-ray him and find that the tumor has returned. They remove the tumor again and he hasn't been rearrested in the last two to three years.

Ironically, we may see a lot of court cases involving brain abnormalities where people claim their lawyer was ineffective. "I should have had a brain scan," they will tell the jury.

4. Treatment: using neuroscience in medical care.

We are not giving billions of dollars to neuroscientists to study whatever interests them, but for treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's. That is what is driving the funding for neuroscience.

We have to ask careful questions, however, about claims of treatment to avert or cure diseases such as opiate addiction. Could a judge order someone to get treatment based on a brain scan, or is the brain sacred? To what extent can parents force children to get treatments based on neuroscience?

As our basic medical knowledge improves, we will see dual uses spread away from cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's as we learn more about how to fundamentally change others.

5. Enhancement: using neuroscience to juice our capabilities.

You most often think about college kidsusing Adderall or Ritalin to give themselves a brain boost. There isn't a lot of evidence this helps, aside from keeping them awake.

But what if it does work? Is it fair to the kid who doesn't get a brain enhancement? Or what if it only works long enough to pass your medical exam—should that person be practicing medicine? Will we have to pee in a cup before finals?

I think that in memories is where we will see neuroscience matter. So much is being done on memory in connection with Alzheimer's, but also with age-appropriate memory loss. I would take a pill in an instant to have a memory as sharp as I recall it was when I was younger.

Last, we asked Greeley if neuroscience would result in ethics becoming more brain-based and moving away from the old moral questions.

No, I see neuroscience raising questions similar to any technology, although they will be fundamental ones because of the importance of the brain to our sense of self.

For any technology there are two questions you need to ask:

Does it work? It is easy to get carried away with the science-fiction scenarios and just assume it works, which may encourage giving too much credibility to a technology.

The other question is, if it does work, what now? There will be benefits and risks to any technology. It is really important to focus on both questions—not to focus on just one first—to give thought to both before it is too late to think about either one.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

18 comments
Rico Rey Bulan Jr
Rico Rey Bulan Jr

The issue regarding the possibility of a released criminal (either by parole or by fully serving the sentence) to commit the same or a different crime reminded me of Tom Cruise's Minority Report. In the film, precogs are used by a special division of the police force to predict persons who are going to commit crimes. These would-be criminals are arrested before they ever have the chance to commit the crime.


The use of neuroscience to predict criminals' future behavior will be very helpful, but - theoretically - to extend their sentence on the sole basis of their likelihood to commit a crime seems like a violation of the 5th Amendment. Will this new development in neuroscience affect the presumption "innocent until proven guilty"?

Kristina Collins
Kristina Collins

Life is too short to not know, or wonder how the brain works.  

s yugamani
s yugamani

Can it be certainly said that brain is not affected in AIDS patient?

David Lee
David Lee

it is a fallacy to assume just because we may understand the inner workings of a complex system that we may understand the totality; that is to say, the individual parts do not equal to the sum of those parts. The most frightening implications of this fallacy is the thought that no one has control over their actions and free will is but an illusion. 

William Dickinson
William Dickinson

"The complexity of the human brain staggers its own imagination"

But perhaps being completely astonished or amazed by our brains complexity can lead us to a more humble assessment of our behaviors, motivations, and emotions.

While we are unlikely to unravel but a few secrets of our brains functioning maybe we can ultimately accept that people do what they do because they choose to after their brains have analyzed the options available to them. A chilling thought or an enlightening one?

Vishwas Dattatraya Sangle
Vishwas Dattatraya Sangle

Brain --- The study of Brain will continue till we, the human beings exist on this planet. 

Vinko Rajic
Vinko Rajic

I think that it would be very important to give evidence that telepathy works . I think that some "Schizophrenic patients" could be just telepathic . On the other side some religious groups use telepathy to talk like a "God".   More about that you can find in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOuuuvvKae4

Rahul J.
Rahul J.

Brain science equal to Space science .we work in 100 % but we know only 10 %.

it is power of brain ...

William Phillips
William Phillips

I agree with Gerardo J's criticism of the brain signals hypothesis, but I would go further and question whether any of us actually exists as an objective entity. Before we theorize about the neuromechanics of the brain we need to investigate ourselves. According to the recognized experts, those who systematically pursue the query "What am I?" - the search leads to a nil result. The "me" we think we are simply doesn't exist. It's the result of lifelong conditioning centered on a "hard wired" self preservation instinct. Thus there truly is in fact no free will because there is no actual entity to exercise it.

Gerardo J.
Gerardo J.

Err... I think they're overestimating brain signals... Sure, certain substances are related to specific behaviours, but that's not the whole picture: it's not like we're fully determined by our neurobiology (that would imply we're back on the track of biological determinism).

I wonder if this stems from a confusion between biological behaviour and cultural behaviour, since all behaviours (social behaviours in particular) have a varying degree of biological components.

Still, cultural behaviours (and yes, *only humans* have developed culture in the proper sense of the term) are multi-factored and indeed tend to override biology. I seriously doubt Neuroscience alone could ever go as far as *predicting* squat: at best it will _suggest_ highly probable scenarios (Schrödinger's equation all over again), no mind reading at all (is finding out whether you're thinking about a face *or* place proper mind-reading?; sounds more like gloryfied and highly informed guesswork). Also, considering the humongous amount of times we think about faces and places, an 85% accuracy rate still seems a bit off...

Likewise, I'm not sure how far this applied Neuroscience for vegetative people could go: cool enough, you can tell (85% of the time) when a quadraplegic is thinking on a place or face but, how can you neurobiologically reconstruct speech?

The fact they're trying to get ahead on the ethical issues of these matters is indeed commendable (there's still doubt whether these addressings stem from real morals or market concerns), but remember that regarding mores, rulings are helpless: if they arrive too late they're useless, but if they come too early they're inapplicable.

Tom Carberry
Tom Carberry

Those big questions go to ethics and social structure more than they go to brain science.  Sure, people can misuse brain science.


But scientists have much bigger questions than those.  For example, how does it all work?  What makes it work.  Does the brain think or does "something else" do the thinking, the soul v. brain question.  


Do plants have consciousness and if yes, why?  (Plants have serotonin and so do human brains).  How do consciousness and thought differ, if they do?  Do human brains differ qualitatively from other animal brains?


A lot of people will give you a definitive answer to all of those questions, but in reality we don't have the answers to any of them.


People have only just begun to study the mind and brain.  Who knows what we will know 50 or 100 years from today.  I do know that we don't know a lot, but a lot of people will use the little we know for profit, such as big pharma making mood pills and anti-depression pills, based on a minimal understanding of the brain.  Or using CAT scans and MRI machines without informing patients of their dangers, or worse yet, without believing they pose any dangers, despite the complete lack of research.  An MRI works with magnets and recent neuroscience shows the brain operates in a magnetic net.  That sounds like a potential problem to me and why would a doctor not worry about it?  Mostly because of their culture, which doesn't teach them to stay alert for such dangers.

Joyce Hansen
Joyce Hansen

Issues to be addressed before we regret we didn't act sooner.

J Walker
J Walker

@William Phillips Interesting discussion for sure. My I add? If the "recognized experts" conclusions were true we should al—in fact—be identical. Because we are all absolutely unique, reason dictates we are in fact individuals with self consciousness, volition and unique contributions to the world we live in. We are much higher than animals driven solely by instinct. To believe there is no actual entity to exercise free will requires a type of intellectual and psychological gymnastics which—to me—suggests loosing our grip on reality. Much of life is involuntary, for sure but humans are supremely adaptive, like no other living thing we know.


I am inclined to accept the metaphysical conclusions offered by the Bible for this perplexing phenomena that may never be quantified my natural, material means. Will we every get our hands on "the intangible mind" or understand life and death? The search down the wrong road will likely continue to  lead to a "nil".


I believe—as the Bible teaches— the physical body is a material apprentice by which we are able to contemplate greater spiritual life (1Cor. 15). "We are made in God's image" which allows us to reason on a level beyond our earthly limitations. The brain is the necessary apprentice for this to take place.  It is phenomenal for sure, but so is everything else we experience and observe—we are in the midst of phenomena.  

For now supernatural phenomenon require supernatural answers.

That's my take.

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