minds of our own?

analysis, bbc radio 4, 15 march 2010

JULIAN SAVULESCU   The coming decades will be a time when neuroscience really goes forward exponentially. We will be able to influence the basic human condition, our cognitive abilities, our mood, and even perhaps our romantic relationships. Further down the track, we may even be interfering in early human development or contributing to augmenting early human development or even genetic engineering.

RAY TALLIS   The attraction of a brain scan is it appears to be objective data. In a world of values and arguments and impressions, here you’ve got an objective datum, a bit of the brain lighting up. The fact that that datum actually is irrelevant doesn’t seem to matter too much - it’s objective - and of course it does have the glamour of high science, of leading edge technology, and people are suckers for technology.

KENAN MALIK   The philosophers Julian Savulescu and Ray Tallis. Savulescu, a bioethicist from Oxford, has a breathless optimism about the potential of neuroscience to make us better humans. Tallis, once a practicing doctor, fears that the glamour of brain science is seducing us for all the wrong reasons. This is no abstract debate. Politicians, policy makers, lawyers – all are turning to neuroscience to help answer fundamental questions about human nature and to shape everything from social policy to courtroom verdicts. So who’s right? Can a better understanding of our brains help us create better societies and live better lives? Or is it a dangerous fad – and one, perhaps, with dark ethical consequences?

fMRI AUDIO   How you doing? Everything OK? Fantastic job – well done. We’re just going to take a little pause so you can relax a bit. Should be a couple of minutes, OK?

KENAN MALIK   That’s the sound of the hottest neuroscientific technology: fMRI – functional magnetic resonance imaging. Or brain scans to you and me. What is it and why are so many people excited by it? Geraint Rees, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College, London.

GERAINT REES   A functional MRI scanner is like a hospital brain scanner, an MRI scanner, but it’s adapted so it can produce pictures not just of the brain’s structure, what the brain looks like, but also the brain’s function - what areas are lighting up when we think. And the way it does that is by measuring the oxygen that’s carried in the haemoglobin in red blood cells as it goes to the tissues. The neurones in the brain, when they become active, use that oxygen and that’s measured by the scanner and enables us to measure which bits light up when we think. In the early days of functional MRI, about fifteen, twenty years ago, it was often used just to map what areas of the brain are associated with, and analysis of, particular aspects of how the brain processes information. More recently it’s been used essentially to answer questions and test hypotheses about how the brain works.

KENAN MALIK   What’s really attracted attention is not the scientific but the social potential of fMRI. Stephen Laken is CEO of Cephos, an American company at the forefront of the social use of the technology.

STEPHEN LAKEN   People have used functional MRI for everything from understanding diseases, things like Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, to understanding political preferences in determining what makes a person like a specific candidate, to even understanding why it is that we choose the things that we choose - something called neuromarketing. And then what our company works on is something called deception, which is essentially looking at the parts of the brain that people are using when they’re lying or telling the truth.

KENAN MALIK   Many of Cephos’ clients are private individuals. People who might want to check whether their children are lying or their spouse is cheating. But increasingly it’s governments and state institutions being seduced by the idea that a scan of the brain gives a glimpse of the person’s soul. In India, a 23-year old woman, Aditi Sharma, was convicted of murder last year on the evidence of a brain scan. In America, a convicted murderer might receive a retrial after brain scan evidence submitted by Cephos suggested that he might originally have told the truth. And in Britain, Cephos say they have talked to the Home Office about the use of fMRI technology to help decide whether paedophiles are safe for release (the Home Office says it has no intention of using brain scan data, though the Ministry of Justice is currently piloting polygraph technology on sex offenders).

But how scientifically robust is the fMRI technology upon which all this is based? Stephen Laken.

STEPHEN LAKEN   We’ve published the largest studies with the most complete set of people of any place, and what our studies show is that the accuracy rates range from 75% to 97%.

KENAN MALIK   But even if it’s say 90% accuracy, that still means that one case in ten you’re going to get wrong. That’s a major problem, isn’t it?

STEPHEN LAKEN   Virtually all the forensic evidence or any measurement that man makes has an error rate. DNA evidence has an error rate, fingerprints have an error rate. The problem with most forensic evidence outside of DNA is that the error rates aren’t known. We know that fingerprints aren’t perfect, we know that fibre analysis, treadmark, toolmark, shoe analysis have error rates. They’re not perfect. It’s not definitive 100%. We have an error rate. We can define that error rate and it’s really up to the jury to decide what weight to put on that error rate.

KENAN MALIK   Because DNA fingerprinting also has a certain error rate, so there is nothing to worry about brain scan evidence. I’m not sure that that’s a particularly convincing argument. But it’s not just in the courtroom that advocates of fMRI see its uses. In an age in which terrorism creates an all-pervasive fear, the technology is being touted as a magic bullet in the war on terror. Stephen Laken again.

STEPHEN LAKEN   In terms of security, there’s a number of things - understanding whether or not people have preferences for specific fundamental groups. And understanding whether people may have had seen a place, so you can actually look at the neuroscience images in a person’s brain and determine whether or not someone’s been to a place before. So if a person was in an al-Qaeda training camp that would only be specific to them, you can actually determine that. As well as understanding languages. When did a person learn a language? Was it their first language? Was it their second language? Was it a language that they learned later on in life versus a language that they learned at birth?

KENAN MALIK   According to some, the spooks may already be poring over brain scans. Paul Root Wolpe is professor of medicine and of bioethics at Emory University in Atlanta. He’s also NASA’s chief bioethicist. Does he believe that there’s some secret government lab somewhere trying to develop fMRI as a counter-terrorist weapon?

PAUL ROOT WOLPE There’s no question about it. There already are programmes in the government looking at brain imaging for lie detection and for other purposes. We know this not only because there are funding streams that we’ve seen in some of the research agencies, but also because some of the people who have originated this research in the academy have gotten calls from some of the security agencies asking them technical questions that they would only really need to know if they were trying it themselves. So there’s very little question that these technologies are of great interest to military and security concerns.

KENAN MALIK   But whatever may be the interest in the Pentagon or at Langley, Geraint Rees, for one, remains skeptical about the usefulness of brain scan technology to the spooks - or even to the police.

GERAINT REES   It’s not a useful use of the technology at this stage. It seems to me to be going a really long way ahead of things to suggest that brain scanning technology is somehow a panacea that will address or answer these questions. We know that brain imaging and lie detection technology can sometimes work better than chance - that is, it’s better than just tossing a coin and guessing - but for most legal situations, one wants to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt.

KENAN MALIK   Ray Tallis has a deeper concern about the way that such technology makes us conceive of what is a lie or a truth. As a former doctor who specialized in the rehabilitation of people with brain damage, he is well used to reading brain scans and is enthusiastic about their medical potential. As a philosopher, however, he worries that the social use of fMRI rests on an impoverished view of the human thought process.

RAY TALLIS   Lies are quite complicated things and there are different kinds of lies. But more profound than that is the assumption that, say, lying is associated with activity within a particular region of the brain. If I am telling a lie, I am mobilising all sorts of things in my consciousness, in my world, in my awareness of the world. And I don’t think that looking at brain activity in the way we do could tell you whether you were lying because lies are not those sorts of things like response to stimuli which can be examined usefully using these techniques. I cannot imagine a situation where there is a simple one to one mapping between a lying statement as opposed to a true statement and what is seen on the scanning.

KENAN MALIK   Of course, many people would say it’s quite possible to distinguish between a truth and a lie by looking at brain activity and this is precisely what brain scans have taught us. But it’s not just questions of truth or falsity for which people turn to brain scans for answers. It’s also questions of responsibility and intentionality. Was an individual responsible for his actions? Did he intend to commit an act? Scans can detect brain damage, and this is beginning to change the way that the legal profession in particular thinks about how and why people act.

MOCK TRIAL AUDIO   State your name for the record. Dr James Brewer. Dr Brewer do you swear to tell the truth... (fade)

KENAN MALIK   The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently held a mock trial to explore the use of neuroscientific evidence. The prosecutor was played by Hank Greely, professor of law at Stanford University, and the world’s leading expert in the ethical implications of the legal use of bioscience.

HANK GREELY   The story was ex-boyfriend murders his ex-girlfriend. It turns out later that he has a major lesion, a major damaged area in his frontal lobes. And the defence tries to argue that because of the extent of that frontal lobe damage, he would not have been able at the time of the crime either to plan to kill her, which goes to the legal requirement of premeditation for first degree, for the highest level of murder, or even to intend to kill her, which goes to second degree and other levels of murder.

A couple of things about it that really interested me. One was the expert for the defence put up an MRI of a normal brain, and then shortly thereafter put up an MRI of the supposed defendant’s brain. And there was a big black area, empty area in the frontal lobes. There were about 150 people in the audience and I think everyone of them gasped. I’ve never heard such a loud (gasps) from a group before because it was so dramatic.

The other thing that was interesting was the audience’s decision. The audience said no, they didn’t think we had proven that he had premeditated. Then we asked have we proven that he killed with intent. The audience said we had. There was nothing about the lesion in the frontal lobe that would say he couldn’t premeditate but he could intend. The audience, I think, looked at that hole in his brain and said, 'Well, we want to cut him some slack. We believe that this must have had some effect.' But they weren’t willing to say it had so much effect that he was not guilty at all.

KENAN MALIK   What this suggests is that the public is perhaps more savvy about the implications of neuroscience than many politicians or policy makers or philosophers. Rather than view neuroscience as transforming their view of human behaviour, this audience, at least, seemed to view the neuroscientific evidence in the light of what they already knew of human conduct. For some, however, the new science of the brain will inevitably transform our notions of human nature and therefore of what it means for an individual to act or to believe. And not just those who are obviously brain damaged. Deborah Denno is professor of law at New York’s Fordham University. She is leading a campaign for the law to acknowledge that people are always fully in control of their actions.

DEBORAH DENNO   The criminal law is based on the concept that you’re either acting voluntarily or involuntarily, and if you act involuntarily often times you’re totally acquitted from the criminal justice system and nothing is done to you. There’s an example in your country recently of a man in Wales who killed his wife while he was sleeping. And there was every indication that he was acting unconsciously and involuntarily when he killed her because he was having bad dreams and he had a history of sleep disorders. But your criminal justice system acquitted him entirely, as ours would too given that kind of situation, which you know is a good result because he didn’t seem to be responsible for his actions. At the same time, he committed a really serious crime and there’s nothing to suggest that he would have to be obligated to anybody in the future with respect to his behaviour. In other words, he wouldn’t have to take drugs or any kind of medication or medical supervision to make sure that he doesn’t do this again.

KENAN MALIK   So your idea is to have a third category, a category of semi-voluntary act, is it not?

DEBORAH DENNO   That’s right. This would be a category of semi-voluntary acts where there might be an indication that some people are a little bit more aware than we had normally considered them to be, and also some suggestion that some people commit serious acts and maybe they shouldn’t be totally acquitted from the criminal justice system. Now
along with that concept, however, is the idea that the criminal justice system assumes that people act intentionally too much. In other words, there’s a presumption that we’re all intentional actors for the most part, and I think the new consciousness research would suggest that perhaps there is a category of people who aren’t acting as intentionally as the criminal law has assumed that they have been in the past.

KENAN MALIK   It’s not just lawyers looking to neuroscience to help transform practice. Politicians and policy makers are even more enthusiastic. Iain Duncan Smith is one of them. Six years ago the former Conservative Party leader founded the think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, and has since devoted himself to the task of transforming Britain’s social and welfare policies. Early Intervention, a report jointly produced by the Centre for Social Justice and the Labour-supporting Smith Institute, uses the latest brain research to argue that government intervention is best targeted in the first three years of a child’s life.

IAIN DUNCAN SMITH   If you’re talking about something like early intervention, I think you need really to be evidence-led on this. And what neuroscience is now telling us is that there is a physical issue here, something that is happening. What neuroscience tells us categorically is that, unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we are in a sense almost born into intensive care in the sense that because we are born almost a year early, I guess, if you compare us to monkeys or whatever it is. Therefore the relationship between the nurturer, the mother, and the child assumes staggering importance because that’s challenging the brain and the child its trying to accommodate. The mother and what’s going on is something very physical which is that the brain is developing. That challenge is causing the brain to stimulate certain areas in its development that actually then allows that brain to develop in a balanced way. So what we have to do is work with the mother, to change the mother to change the child.

KENAN MALIK   Politicians taking an interest in science is, of course, something to be welcomed, as is the attempt to root social policy in scientific fact. But does neuroscience really provide the evidence that Iain Duncan Smith believes it does in favour of early intervention? Some neuroscientists think that the plasticity of the infant brain may be an argument for ensuring that a child’s first experiences are particularly
beneficial. Others, however, are far more skeptical. A few years ago I
made another Analysis programme, on the question of early
intervention. I talked to a number of neuroscientists, including John
Bruer, Director of the Cognitive Studies for Educational Practice at the
James McDonnell Foundation in St Louis, Missouri.

JOHN BRUER   There is no neuroscientific research that supports the claim that the first three years are critical for all these various kinds of development and that is the only time educators can usefully intervene to help children. There are clearly critical periods for certain kinds of development - typically vision, hearing, acquiring a first language. Beyond that, the evidence is very slim. But the belief that there are long-term consequences from early childhood that carry into adult life across a wide range of skills and abilities, we'll find that claim is not warranted.

IAIN DUNCAN SMITH   My answer to that is you know you’re in the middle of a general debate amongst neuroscientists as well about the application of those and you’ll have always people very reluctant to draw any major conclusions. That’s what scientists do. They hate people drawing major conclusions on anything except pure science. We’re not saying that neuroscience told us this, so that’s why we’re here. What the neuroscience does in this area is confirming quite a lot of already understood social work that is going on.

KENAN MALIK   Iain Duncan Smith. Perhaps he’s right. But then should the argument for early intervention not stand on its own two feet? If there is no consensus among neuroscientists why make an issue of the science? In roping in neuroscience to back a political policy are politicians not exploiting the status and authority of science to add weight to their favoured policies? The doctor and philosopher Ray Tallis.

RAY TALLIS   I find it very interesting that politicians, both left and right, are looking to neuroscience to validate some of their policies. If you have to send out to neuroscience to either support, to validate or to discover new political theories, I think you’re in real trouble. Politics is about intentions, it’s about the sense of a nation, what its destiny is, and so on and so forth, and none of that it seems to me can possibly map very simply into bits of the brain or activity in bits of the brain. So I am dismayed that neuropolitics is getting such a hold on the imagination of politicians of all stripes. When you hear politicians talking about neuroscience, often they will tell us that brain scans have shown us something we actually knew already from you know much better sources of information such as our general knowledge of the world. But of course if you place a brain scan next to a statement, then it suddenly becomes much more interesting. A truism becomes a revelation and I think people are very much under the spell of the glamour of neuroscience. They suddenly think they’re seeing the mind, the soul, the truth. And I have to tell you what they’re seeing is brain activity, which is none of those things.

KENAN MALIK   Ray Tallis is skeptical because he has a particular conception of what it means for humans to think and to act. He accepts the data of brain scans. But he also thinks that they are largely irrelevant to the task of formulating social policies or engaging in political action, because they describe the processes of human thought at a level far removed from that upon which policy or action impinges. Others, however, have a very different conception of human thought and action, and therefore about the utility of neuroscience in a social context. They believe that the data emerging from the new science of the brain are changing our very conceptions of human nature. Julian Savulescu is director of Oxford University’s Centre for Practical Ethics. He believes that only through understanding the brain can we overcome the moral frailties of the human race.

JULIAN SAVULESCU   We will have to have a better understanding of human moral limitation and we will have to start to inculcate certain values and certain forms of morality rather than being very neutral as we
traditionally have been in liberal societies to different conceptions of the good life, religious traditions and different versions of morality.

KENAN MALIK   But who decides what’s morally right and wrong? Who decides whether such behaviour needs neuro-enhancing?

JULIAN SAVULESCU   There are two essential views of ethics - a subjective view that says it’s just what people desire or just what people want or it’s relative to cultures; or a more objective view that says, no, certain things are right or wrong whether or not people want them - and I personally hold a more objective view. And there are large areas of convergence. When you look at moral development over the last centuries, we agree that slavery is wrong, sexism is wrong. So we need to start looking at those common points of agreement - what’s objective about ethics and about what’s objectively valuable about our society - and really try to promote that.

KENAN MALIK   That seems to suggest that that if, for instance, we could through the use of a pill stop people being racist, we should promote that?

JULIAN SAVULESCU   When you say 'Giive people pills', it has a kind of a totalitarian ring to it. But if I said to you, 'We should educate people to be less racist', everyone would be in favour of that. But education changes the structure of people’s brains and if indeed our understanding of biology can augment that process, I can’t see a reason for why we shouldn’t embrace that kind of use of knowledge and technology. Although I understand that people will be frightened of it.

KENAN MALIK   Isn’t the difference this: that education requires having a conversation, dialogue, debate. Whereas taking a pill requires none of that.

JULIAN SAVULESCU   If it were something that people voluntarily you know chose to engage in, there wouldn’t be a problem. The complex case is going to be where the person doesn’t want to have this kind of intervention. And there you have to look at the social effects. So if somebody’s racism is essentially something that remains in their own home, in their own minds, doesn’t influence their treatment of other people, then it wouldn’t be a reason for society to intervene against their wishes. If somebody was engaged in violent racist attacks against other people, harming those other people, there would be much stronger reasons for intervening even against their will.

KENAN MALIK   Professor Savulescu’s argument raises profound questions about what ethics are, about what it means to be a moral person, and about how we make better citizens. Over the next decade, as our understanding of the brain increases, as well as our ability to
manipulate neural processes, it won’t be just university professors who’ll have to wrestle with such questions, but politicians, policy makers, teachers, doctors. And you and me, too.

Professor Savulescu’s argument also raises more immediate and concrete ethical questions, particularly about privacy. The bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe.

PAUL ROOT WOLPE   For the first time in human history we can actually get information directly from a person’s brain. And what that means is that this area that throughout human thought and human self-conception has always been a closed, private realm of thought, dreaming, ideas, beliefs is now potentially open to others for the first time. And if the idea of privacy means anything at all, I believe it means our right to keep that realm of human existence private to ourselves; to not allow anyone else access to the inner workings of our own minds.

Sartre talked about the idea that the ultimate power of a human being is the power to say 'No' - the power that if I need somehow to resist tyranny, or if I believe that I have been wronged, my ultimate power is refusal to cooperate. What this technology potentially takes away from us - and we need to add here that right now you can’t use brain imaging coercively in any way - but if we were to get to the point where we could actually scan brains against people’s will or without their knowledge, we will have taken away that last refuge of resistance: the ability of a person to refuse to cooperate, to refuse to participate in their own interrogation or oppression. And that for me that is a very scary prospect and quite different to other forms of communication.

KENAN MALIK   Whether or not you worry depends, of course, on how powerful you think neuroscientific technology really is. If you accept that a brain scan really is a window into the human soul, then you may well have a legitimate fear that this technology could have devastating consequences for one’s right to privacy. If, on the other hand, you think, like Ray Tallis does, that thoughts are more than simply neural activity, then you may be a bit more sanguine. Fear of neuroscience and hype about it are, ironically, two sides of the same coin. But whatever view we take on what brain scans reveal about ourselves, the advance of neuroscience will inevitably still raise profound ethical and political questions. Hank Greely, professor of law at Stanford University.

HANK GREELY   We really are in the middle of an incredible revolution in our understanding of the human brain. Compared to thirty years ago, weknow infinitely more now. Compared to thirty years from now, we probably know effectively zero. The new tools are really allowing us to understand what’s happening in living human brains so much better than we ever could before.

Almost one per cent of the adult population in the world has schizophrenia and they almost all are diagnosed between the ages of about 18 and 30. If we could predict which 15-year-olds with high accuracy are going to be diagnosed with schizophrenia in the next fifteen years, how would we use that information? Would we decide that maybe we don’t want to let them become police officers or members of the military?

And then there’s anti-social behaviour. Most crime is committed by a relatively small number of people. What if we could do a brain scan of 12-year-old boys and figure out with high accuracy which ones are going to be criminals in the future? What would we do? Would we put them in jail and throw away the key? Would we put them in treatment that may or may not work? Would we warn the neighbours about them? Would we have them wear GPS bracelets?

You know, what would we do with that information? As an academic, my bias is that information is good and more information is better. But that’s not always true in the real world.

KENAN MALIK   What is striking about these questions is that the answers do not lie in the province of neuroscience alone. They demand, instead, that we first take a stand on the broader issues. About what it means to lie. About what it means to act with intention. About what it means to be moral. About what it means to be human. Neuroscience cannot answer such questions. Rather, we have to interpret neuroscientific data in the light of answers we’ve already come to. And that, perhaps, is the real challenge of neuroscience in the coming decades. Not to provide the easy answers but to provoke us into thinking about the difficult questions.