Neuroscience has come a long way in the past decade, and we’re making even more headway now. We can now record the brain activity of a person and decode the motor output as the person thinks about walking, speaking, or writing. Human behavior and consciousness, as well as our ability to influence and control them, are now well within our sphere of knowledge and understanding. As a result, many facets of society, including the judicial system, academic institutions, corporations, and government, are influenced by this field. This raises the importance of resolving ethical, legal, and societal concerns that will inevitably arise as a result of these developments. Maintaining a steady rate of development in neuroethics along with technical development is essential for avoiding unintended consequences. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of researchers, groups, and institutions devoted to the study of neuroethics since the turn of the century. It has developed into its own discipline, with conferences held by groups made up of ground-breaking scientists and academics and courses offered at a wide range of prestigious institutions. So let’s explore some of the elements of neuroethics.
Concerns over patients’ right to privacy have prompted significant efforts to keep their medical records secure. When it comes to data gathered from the brain, such as an electroencephalogram or a brain scan, this worry is amplified. With the rapid development of neuroscience, it is now possible to deduce people’s mental states and personality traits from such information. Researchers in labs, manufacturers of BCI devices, and marketers interested in neuromarketing have all begun recording brain activity for reasons beyond medical diagnosis and treatment of neurological illnesses. If such information falls into the wrong hands, it can be used to learn about a person’s weak spots and then influence them. False prediction is another issue that comes up when thinking about brain activity monitoring. It is not a perfect model for understanding someone’s character and judgment because there may be several processes between recording brain activation and decoding, such as signal processing and statistical analysis. Thus, it is increasingly important that individuals understand the need to protect their mental privacy and that robust laws and policies exist to do so.
Neuroenhancement, or the use of medicines or non-pharmacological ways to improve cognitive abilities such as executive functioning, memory, and social skills, is the most controversial and hotly disputed topic in the field of neuroethics. Methylphenidate (Ritalin), a medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has been used by high school and university students to enhance their cognitive abilities, specifically their working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control. Brain-machine interfaces and non-invasive brain stimulation are a couple of other options. Researchers, ethicists, and the general public have mixed feelings about the use of such technologies to improve cognition. Humans are currently using medications and other means to boost physical ability; therefore, it is assumed that neuroenhancement is just as feasible. Health concerns, social concerns, and concerns about inequality are just a few of the arguments that have been made against this practice. Several of the approaches have some minor side effects. On top of that, it has a way of impacting the lives of everyone, not just the people who take advantage of these treatments. The inequity that results from the fact that persons of lower socioeconomic class are often unable to access the benefits of these approaches despite their desire to do so is a direct result of the high costs associated with them. Doping, in which athletes take drugs to improve their performance, is today considered unlawful and forbidden and is sometimes held up as an analogy to this practice. In addition to being unethical, it forced athletes who disagreed with the use of performance-enhancing substances to do so in order to remain competitive. Finally, there have been philosophical objections to neuroenhancement that attempt to reframe how we think about and value human effort and success. How much ownership do we have over a feat that required the use of drugs?
Brain, Blame, And Free Will
There’s mounting doubt about our ability to take responsibility for our acts, especially when those actions are illicit. Different neuroscientists have pointed out that our brains, which are shaped by our upbringing and, to some extent, our genes, are responsible for all of our actions and beliefs. This encompasses a wide range of emotions, such as empathy, decision-making, and a sense of moral violation. Multiple studies have demonstrated that horrible criminal behavior can be induced by trauma to the brain, childhood abuse, or excessive use of illegal drugs that affect the reward system. Indeed, research into the backgrounds of serial killers and other criminals reveals that virtually all of them were abused as children or young adults. With this evidence at hand, is it still possible to pin the crime on a single person? Does free will really exist, or is it just an illusion? Many nations’ legal systems now routinely consult neuropsychiatric experts as part of their investigations of criminals, and convicts themselves have greatly benefited from these and other reforms. However, there is still more research and discussion to be done before the terms “conscious” and “unconscious” or “voluntary” and “involuntary” and the concept of “free will” can be settled.
The expanding body of scientific literature on the brain has revealed that it is responsible for virtually every element of human existence, including thoughts, feelings, actions, memories, and more generally, the entire set of characteristics that make up an individual’s unique identity. In addition, it is susceptible to modification via pharmacological and non-pharmacological techniques. Mood-altering medicines exist alongside those that alter a person’s sexual appetite. The fact that we have the ability to intervene and change these delicate aspects of our lives despite not having all the answers to the question of which sections of the brain govern them is deeply unsettling. When people with neurological disorders undergo invasive operations or simulations as a kind of treatment, they sometimes develop new personalities as a result of the surgery or simulation. In the face of this revelation, it’s tough to pin down the essence of who we are. If a person’s identity is something that distinguishes them and lasts throughout their lifetime, then by changing them, are we really changing their identity? And which one of these selves, the one before the treatment or after, will be recognized as the authentic one? This is a hotly contested issue among philosophers, ethicists, and neuroscientists, and it has the potential to have a major bearing on how we view the field of neuroscience and its implications for society.
We can’t even begin to guess at the potential personal and societal changes that will be brought about by the advancements in neuroscience and neurotechnology in the years to come. However, there is no doubt that both the research and commercial aspects have expanded dramatically. Therefore, in order to keep tabs on the development and effects of this field, it is crucial for the general public to be informed about its ramifications.