Art: A Ve­hi­cle for Sci­ence

Con­ver­sa­tions in Neu­roethics

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Sean Zhang Sci+tech Writer

Neu­roethics is a rapid­lye­merg­ing dis­ci­pline ex­am­in­ing the im­pact of neu­ro­science and neu­rotech­nol­ogy on hu­man liveli­hoods. The field aims to an­swer ques­tions like: can brain scans be used to de­ter­mine in­no­cence or guilt in a court of law? Do per­son­al­ity changes re­sult­ing from Deep Brain Stim­u­la­tion change a pa­tient’s iden­tity? Some of these ques­tions re­main ab­stract, yet many are per­ti­nent in the cre­ation of poli­cies that gov­ern our so­ci­ety. As I’ve re­cently learned, neu­roethics is also an ex­cel­lent topic for “speed-dat­ing.”

On Oc­to­ber 19, Dr. Siddharth Ra­makr­ish­nan, a neu­ro­science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Puget Sound in Wash­ing­ton, gave a sem­i­nar at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity on how art can be used to con­vey ideas in the field of neu­roethics. The talk was held in part­ner­ship with Con­ver­gence Ini­tia­tive, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes col­lab­o­ra­tion and ex­change be­tween the arts and sciences. Open to the gen­eral pub­lic, it was at­tended by a di­verse group of over 90 in­di­vid­u­als in var­i­ous fields, such as neu­ro­science, fine arts, medicine, and phi­los­o­phy. A “speed- dat­ing” event was held af­ter the talk, where at­ten­dees were ran­domly paired up to have 5-minute dis­cus­sions on the lec­ture top­ics. Guests were en­cour­aged to con­trib­ute their thoughts and ideas through ei­ther writ­ing or draw­ing onto a com­mu­nal sheet of pa­per.

Why Neu­roethics?

Dr. Ra­makr­ish­nan as­serted the im­por­tance of neu­roethics in our ev­ery­day lives. As our tech­nol­ogy evolves, new poli­cies need to be de­vel­oped to gov­ern their use. Ra­makr­ish­nan gave the ex­am­ple of eth­i­cal is­sues per­tain­ing to Brain- Com­puter In­ter­faces (BCI) – mi­crochips that can be im­planted in the brain for cog­ni­tive en­hance­ment. BCIS are be­ing de­vel­oped to im­prove the qual­ity of life for peo­ple liv­ing with paral­y­sis or se­vere mo­tor im­pair­ment. Other po­ten­tial ben­e­fits of BCIS in­clude in­creased over­all in­tel­li­gence, en­hanced mem­ory, and the im­ple­men­ta­tion of com­plex com­put­er­ized func­tions such as GPS or cal­cu­la­tors. Es­sen­tially, hu­man brains could de­velop into su­per­com­put­ers. But we have to ask: who would have ac­cess to BCIS? What about in­di­vid­u­als who choose to not use BCIS, or can’t af­ford them? De­spite their po­ten­tial for good, tech­nolo­gies like BCIS also carry po­ten­tial to fur­ther in­crease so­cial dis­par­i­ties, and deepen al­ready ex­ist­ing di­vides. If only those with cap­i­tal to ac­cess the tech­nol­ogy are able to ben­e­fit from cog­ni­tive en­hance­ments, we can imag­ine that the ben­e­fits would dis­pro­por­tion­ately help groups which have tra­di­tion­ally ben­e­fit­ted from an un­fair ad­van­tage.

Pub­lic In­quiry is Im­por­tant

Equal­ity move­ments have made so­ci­ety more in­clu­sive of groups that have his­tor­i­cally been marginal­ized be­cause of age, gen­der, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, or abil­ity. There are more stake­hold­ers at the dis­cus­sion ta­ble, though we still have work to do to get ev­ery­one there. “We are all stake­hold­ers,” says Dr. Ra­makr­ish­nan.

The “speed- dat­ing” dis­cus­sions echoed the im­per­a­tive for the gen­eral pub­lic to be both wellinformed and crit­i­cal of sci­ence. One neu­ro­science stu­dent ob­served that a sub­stan­tial por­tion of the pub­lic de­nies sci­en­tific facts: the rise in promi­nence of an­ti­vaxxers, cli­mate- change de­niers, and flat- earth be­liev­ers are all symp­toms that al­lude to a grow­ing ail­ment of sci­en­tific ig­no­rance.

Cris­tian Zaelzer, neu­ro­science Ph. D. and the founder of Con­ver­gence Ini­tia­tive, gave his ac­count on the ris­ing promi­nence of anti- sci­ence move­ments. He ex­plained that the brain is con­stantly bom­barded with dif­fer­ent in­for­ma­tion, and the process used by the pre­frontal cor­tex of the brain to sort through all this data is ex­haust­ing. Thus, the mind of­ten re­sorts to us­ing heuris­tics – men­tal short­cuts that con­strict at­ten­tion to one par­tic­u­lar as­pect of a com­plex sit­u­a­tion to con­serve men­tal stam­ina. Dr. Zaelzer ar­gues that through this ex­pla­na­tion, we can un­der­stand how, for ex­am­ple, anti-vaxxers might choose to dis­re­gard the ben­e­fits of vac­cine and fo­cus in­stead on the myth that vac­cines cause autism. He also be­lieves that this type of heuris­tic ex­plains how, be­cause measles is largely un­der con­trol ( iron­i­cally, through vac­ci­na­tion), anti-vaxxers of­ten con­clude that vac­cines are no longer nec­es­sary.

Art as an Es­sen­tial Bridge

How can art ex­plain neu­roethics? A vi­tal ben­e­fit of art lies in its ac­ces­si­bil­ity to the gen­eral pub­lic.

“A lec­ture like this is prob­a­bly not the best way to reach a large au­di­ence,” Dr. Ra­makr­ish­nan ad­mits jok­ingly, con­tin­u­ing, “a bet­ter way would be to have an in­ter­ac­tive art project to at­tract peo­ple, and we could have a dia­logue about it.”

Dr. Ra­makr­ish­nan pre­sented an in­trigu­ing col­lec­tion of in­ter­ac­tive and vis­ual works of art in­spired by neu­ro­science and neu­roethics. One note­wor­thy ex­hibit, “Mind Con­trol,” ef­fec­tively al­lowed one per­son to con­trol an­other’s move­ments via a sim­ple re­mote­con­trol car de­vice. The re­mote con­trol was pro­grammed to send sig­nals into a pair of elec­trodes worn by a vol­un­teer. The elec­trodes, when worn around the head, would then stim­u­late the vestibu­lar sys­tem – the struc­ture re­spon­si­ble for bal­ance, caus­ing the vol­un­teer to lean left or right de­pend­ing on the re­mote con­trol com­mand. If the vol­un­teer is walk­ing, the de­vice could force them to walk in a di­rec­tion of its choos­ing. Peo­ple who en­counter this ex­hibit are forced to rec­on­cile the idea that mind­con­trol, widely be­lieved to be sci­ence fic­tion, is pos­si­ble at some level. The ex­hibit im­me­di­ately opens a dis­cus­sion on the ethics of mind- con­trol de­vices, and cre­ates pub­lic aware­ness and in­quiry into fu­ture de­vel­op­ments of such neu­rotech­nol­ogy.

An­other thought-pro­vok­ing ex­hibit, “Heir­loom,” was cre­ated by artist Gina Czar­necki by care­fully grow­ing hu­man cells on glass casts of a per­son’s face. The ex­hibit was cre­ated by cul­tur­ing tis­sue sam­ples of the artist’s daugh­ters on glass casts of their faces. While the use of hu­man tis­sue is heav­ily reg­u­lated in sci­ence, lit­tle con­sid­er­a­tion seems to have been made to their use in art. This ex­hibit raises ques­tions about the eth­i­cal is­sues of us­ing hu­man tis­sue – in both sci­ence and art.

Bet­tina For­get, Ph. D. in art ed­u­ca­tion, be­lieves the im­por­tance of art lies in its abil­ity to take oth­er­wise un­re­mark­able or con­fus­ing sub­jects and ac­cen­tu­ate its sig­nif­i­cant fea­tures. Art can dis­pel un­pro­duc­tive heuris­tics by cre­at­ing com­pelling and in­ter­est­ing nar­ra­tives to fol­low. Art can also act as a bridge for com­plex sci­en­tific top­ics, such as neu­roethics, by cap­tur­ing the in­ter­est and won­der of the gen­eral pub­lic.


The core mes­sage high­lighted through­out the event was the im­por­tance of col­lab­o­ra­tion. Dr. Ra­makr­ish­nan em­pha­sized the uni­ver­sal rel­e­vance of neu­roethics and en­cour­aged the use of art as a ve­hi­cle to carry out its un­der­stand­ing. The speed­dat­ing dis­cus­sions pro­vided fur­ther proof: guests from a plethora of dif­fer­ent back­grounds, whether ex­perts or layper­sons, came to­gether to bring forth their unique per­spec­tives on cur­rent is­sues in neu­roethics. Bridg­ing var­i­ous iden­ti­ties and dis­ci­plines, the event fa­cil­i­tated new con­nec­tions to foster deep and crit­i­cal un­der­stand­ings of neu­ro­science and a pub­lic aware­ness of neu­roethics.

This sem­i­nar was the cul­mi­na­tion of the tremen­dous ef­forts be­tween Con­ver­gence Ini­tia­tive, in part­ner­ship with the Brain Re­pair and In­te­gra­tive Neu­ro­science Pro­gram ( BRAIN) of Mcgill, the Fac­ulty of Fine Arts of Con­cor­dia ( Fofa), Mcgill In­te­grated Pro­gram in Neu­ro­sciences ( IPN), and the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion for Neu­ro­science ( CAN/ CAN).

Es­sen­tially hu­man brains could de­velop into su­per­com­put­ers. But we have to ask: who would have ac­cess to the tech­nol­ogy?

The im­por­tance of art lies in its abil­ity to take oth­er­wise un­re­mark­able or con­fus­ing sub­jects- and ac­cen­tu­ate its sig­nif­i­cant fea­tures

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