International Neuroethics Society, Post-conference thoughts

I was not able to visit all the talks. For simple reasons of time zone mismatch and remote participation I missed more than I would have skipped otherwise. Nevertheless, it was an extremely interesting conference. Martha Farah described the current phase of neuroethics as that of adolescence, apt given that the field is about 16 to 20 years old, depending on how you count.

What was really striking is the shift in topics and in the stance towards these topics. As nearly everywhere there was strong awareness of past narrowings in perspective, in particular as it concerns ethnic background and gender of research participants on all sides of the neuroscientific investigations: in the study and patient population, the researchers and clinicians, the research and medical support, the research and medical device design and the research and medical ethicists. There was repeated mention of the scientific and medical process themselves excluding alternative sources of knowledge.

What repeatedly struck my mind as an open question in this regard was, however, how different processes of generating knowledge can better support each other: by merging processes of by better representation of people of different background in the different processes. While it seems out of the question that processes of knowledge production can be inspired by other such processes, there are methodological standards withing each of these processes which allow or disallow inclusion of alternative methods. On the other hand, no justifiable standard can exclude persons from participating in any of these types of knowledge generation except by their willingness to learn. Admittedly my musings are yet not systematic, as Anna Wexler pointed out: it probably is not sufficient to counter past narrowings in perspective by simply being more inclusive, it is also necessary to investigate their sources and causes.

Another thought inspired by Martha Farah’s comment that we now come to see how circumstances can have a damaging effect on the brain – her example were the damaging effects of imprisonment – is, in how far contemporary neuroscientific research results tend to show what one could call ‘Your brain on capitalism’. This might sound slightly sensationist, but the more serious point behind it, is that current research practice and research participant recruitment selects not just for ethnic background, gender, etc. but also for inclusion in a specific mode of production with all the effects it has on a person’s daily life: working hours, schedules, hierarchical environment, etc. This is not intended as an oversimplified critique of capitalism; it is just pointing out that our knowledge production might be partially blind to its effects because it rarely gets to see the alternatives.

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