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Brain probe

Steven Pinker headlines MU symposium on neuroethics

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Published: March 16, 2011
Brain Imaging

Brain scan courtesy of the MU Brain Imaging Center.

The notion of taking a foray into the human brain can evoke sci-fi imaginings: neural prodding, mind-reading, thought tracking. Fantastical? Maybe not. As brain scan techniques evolve, the ability to understand how, if not what, a person thinks seems within reach.

Gaining momentum outside the hospital setting at research facilities such as MU’s Brain Imaging Center, modern neuroimaging is being used not only to diagnose brain diseases but also to evaluate and map cognitive functions. As neurologists’ exploration of this multifaceted frontier yields images and tools now wielded by professionals in social sciences and criminal justice, the public has begun asking what brain imaging really can tell us and how it is — or should be — used.

Brain trust

This weekend the seventh annual MU Life Sciences and Society Symposium “Ethics and the Brain” takes on questions surrounding the union of neurology and ethics. The two-day event features lectures and panel discussions with some of the top minds in, well, minds.

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate, gives the keynote address, “A History of Violence,” at 7 p.m. March 19 at the Missouri Theatre. Pinker, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, contends that, while human nature remains constant, rates of violence in societies have declined over the course of human history. He explores reasons for both the decrease and the pervasive false assumption that violence is on the rise.

Throughout the symposium, an interdisciplinary roster of renowned philosophers, anthropologists, neurologists, legal experts and theologians will take on neurocriminology, pain and distress assessment, human decision-making and brain-scan interpretation.

“This topic is just intrinsically fascinating,” says Philip Robbins, an MU professor of philosophy and co-chair of the symposium planning committee. “I think there are very few things more fascinating than questions about what science can tell us about what it is to be a person.”

Of two minds

The symposium takes two approaches to neuroethics. One entails examining the brains of “typical” people and people whose morality seems impaired — such as psychopathic criminals — to draw conclusions about the relationships between brain function and moral or ethical behavior.

The second aspect involves a discussion of ethical issues related to how neuroscience and brain imaging might be used in nonmedical arenas — such as legal proceedings — and determining ways to prevent misuse.

“Neuroscience is exciting. It’s cool. It’s very seductive,” Robbins says.  “But as the seduction unfolds, maybe it would be better to be critical — to not just accept it at face value but to think about where these pictures come from. Does this technology really tell us what it’s claiming to tell us?”

Your brain on crime

The growing field of neurocriminology has emerged at the intersection of these two approaches to neuroethics. Researchers and scholars such as MU law professor Paul Litton pose questions about the relationships among neurological impairments, free will and legal responsibility. For example, if a person whose brain is fundamentally different from a “normal” brain commits a crime, to what extent can that person be held responsible for his or her behavior? How is neurological evidence presented in court and interpreted by jurors?

Symposium guest Adrian Raine, chair of the Department of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, takes the exploration even further, also discussing whether neuroimaging could determine a child’s predisposition toward unethical behavior and, if so, how the information could be used. His talk, “Neurocriminology: Neuroethical and Neurolegal Implications,” doubles as a Saturday Morning Science event at 10:30 a.m. March 19.

Getting involved

Ethics and the Brain poster

Funded largely by Mizzou Advantage, MU Life Sciences and Society Symposia are driven by cross-disciplinary collaborations, and “Ethics and the Brain” organizers encourage community involvement. All sessions are free and open to the public.

“I think all of the talks have implications for all people,” says MU German professor Stefani Englstein, director of MU's Life Sciences and Society Program (LSSP) and co-chair of the symposium planning committee. “To what extent is it possible to determine things about us by looking at brain scans, and what should we as a society do about that? What does it tell us about the amount of choice we have about the decisions we make? The kinds of things under discussion are really important for everybody.”

Organizers expect to attract audience members from all academic disciplines, from universities throughout the country and from the Columbia community. Last year’s Life Sciences and Society Symposium, “From Art to Biology and Back Again,” drew faculty, staff and students from 49 departments in 16 schools and colleges at MU as well as scholars from other universities and teachers, artists and businesspeople from Columbia. More than 1,000 people attended the keynote address.

Want to take part in the discussion? Register online.

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Last updated: June 6, 2013