Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Ethical Brain

The New York Times recently published an interview with Dr Gazzaniga, a prominent neuroscientist, who has just published a new book entitled The Ethical Brain.

I found the following comments particularly interesting:
In "The Ethical Brain," Dr. Gazzaniga discusses his views on stem cell research, along with a range of other important issues. He describes his worry that the techniques of neuroscience may be misused.

For example, he thinks it is wrong to use neuroimaging as a lie detector or as a tool to determine whether criminals are responsible for their crimes. "It shouldn't be dragged into the courtroom," he said. "I think it's totally misused if you're trying to find the errant pixel in the brain that's responsible for why someone killed someone."

Neuroscience's biggest contribution to ethics, Dr. Gazzaniga predicted, is only just emerging: a biological explanation of morality. "In the next 20 years, we're probably going to define why our species seems to have a certain sort of moral compass," he said.

Current research suggests that this moral compass appears to be the product of the human brain's intricate circuitry for understanding other people's thoughts and feelings. Just looking at pictures of people stubbing their toes in doors, for example, activates the same regions of the brain that switch on when people stub their own toes. "When I have an empathetically moment, I literally feel your pain," Dr. Gazzaniga said.

Dr. Gazzaniga argues that when we experience these feelings, the brain's interpreter produces rational explanations for them. The particular explanation it produces depends on a person's particular upbringing. "Each culture may build up a theory, and that may be passed down as traditions and religious moral systems."

But, he said, "the basic reason you don't kill is because your brain tells you it's not a good idea to kill."

Will we ever be able to "define our moral compass" using techniques such as neuroimaging? I'm not sure. Afterall, it stands to reason that other species have a similar "moral compass," but though imaging animals occurs all the time, it would be much harder to study. Perhaps neuroimaging will provide some scientific support for philosophical theories regarding innate morality and ethics, but I'm not sure that the theories can ever be proven. Afterall, if morality can be defined in the brain by a single voxel, what does that really tell us in the broader sense? That knowing that it is wrong to kill comes down to a single group of neurons? Is that group of neurons enough to "prove" that we have a deeper sense of morality than a dolphin (afterall, putting dolphins in a scanner may prove rather difficult)?

One thing's for sure though....Dr. Gazzaniga's book is on my reading list this summer. Science may never be able to prove these philisophical theories, but it is fun to think about!