Dr. Gert-Jan Lokhorst (University of Delft)


As a result of the development of new technology, it is nowadays possible to study the living brain at a level of detail which was unthinkable as recently as 25 years ago. Techniques such as CT-scans make it possible to study the anatomy of the brain in vivo, and techniques such as Positron Emission Tomography and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging make it possible to "see the brain in action" and to study the cerebral correlates of cognition, emotion and behavior. On top of this, technologies aimed at modifying (influencing, treating or enhancing) the brain-ranging from neuropharmacology to neuroengineering-are becoming more and more powerful.

Both types of development give rise to a host of new moral and legal problems. These problems are now being addressed in a new field called "neuroethics," a branch of bioethics which is currently undergoing an explosive growth.

Some issues discussed in neuroethics are special cases of problems which are familiar from traditional medical ethics. For example, what to do with incidental findings, i.e., evidence for pathology (or future pathology) found in the course of experiments carried out for non-medical purposes? Should the subjects be referred to a physician or not? (Practices are remarkably different in different countries.) A second example: how reliable are the reports in the popular media (press, movies, television) and which influence (both cognitive and emotional) do they have on the audience?

However, not all of neuroethics is continuous with traditional medical ethics. The reason for this is that the brain is a very special organ. It is the "organ of thought" and the "seat of the soul" in the sense that researchers nowadays assume that all mental activity is correlated with brain activity. As a result, knowledge of brain functioning comes dangerously close to knowledge of the most intimate and private parts of the mind, and control over brain activity may be regarded as the ultimate form of control over our inner lives.

It is especially the use of brain science outside the health care system that gives rise to ethical concerns and legal problems. For example, in neuroeconomics, researchers try to understand the brain mechanisms that cause economic decisions. This is interesting as pure science, but becomes problematic when neuromarketeers try to identify the "buy-button" and start looking for ways to manipulate it. Similarly, law enforcement agencies are considering "brain fingerprinting" to identify terrorists on the basis of brain activity and are interested in brain-based lie-detection, arguing that "the brain does not lie". It is hard to think of a more drastic breach of privacy. In the foreseeable future, psychological tests may be replaced by, or at least supplemented with, brain imaging evidence for recruitment purposes, insurance companies might want to examine brain scans for indications of present or future mental illness, and so forth -- such developments might well be regarded as undesirable. This is not to say that all applications of neuroscience for non-medical purposes are undesirable. The current "brain-based learning approach" in education, for example, is widely perceived as welcome and defensible.

In this talk, I intend to give an outline of the discussions which are currently going on in this exciting area. I will pay special attention to Neil Levy's claim, in his book Neuroethics (Cambridge UP, forthcoming), that the "extended mind hypothesis" can serve as a basis for neuroethics.

Dr. G.J.C. Lokhorst holds degrees in both medicine (Master's degree, 1980) and philosophy (Master's degree, cum laude, 1985, PhD degree, 1992). He teaches philosophy and ethics in the section of Philosophy of the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, Delft University of Technology, and has just started working on a research project called "Neuroethics: ethical, legal and conceptual aspects of neuroscience and neurotechnology".