March 24, 2010

Neuroscientists don't believe in souls--But that doesn't mean they can't sell theirs

By John Horgan

Of all scientific fields, neuroscience has the greatest potential for revolutionary advances, philosophical and practical. Someday, brain researchers may figure out how precisely the brain encodes thoughts like the ones I’m thinking now. Cracking the neural code could help solve the mind-body problem, ending millennia of pointless metaphysical chitchat. We may finally understand how brains work and why sometimes they don’t. We might even discover truly effective treatments for depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and dementia and chuck our current quasi-therapies.
 
It is because I have such high hopes for neuroscience that I’m so upset by two trends in financing of the field. One involves neuroscience’s growing dependence on the Pentagon, which is seeking new ways to help our soldiers and harm our enemies. For a still-timely overview of neuroweapons research, check out the 2006 book Mind Wars by bioethicist Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania. (PR disclosure: I brought Moreno to my school to give a talk on March 10.) Potential neuroweapons include drugs, transcranial magnetic stimulators and implanted brain chips that soup up the sensory capacities and memories of soldiers, as well as brain-scanners and electromagnetic beams that read, control or scramble the thoughts of bad guys.
 
When Moreno was writing his book, neuroscientists were reluctant to talk about their affair with the Pentagon and seemed embarrassed by it. No longer. Last year the National Academy of Sciences published a 136-page report, Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications, that makes an unabashed pitch for militarizing brain research. The authors include the neuroluminaries Floyd Bloom of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and editor-in-chief of Science; and Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Both are members of the U.S. Council on Bioethics.
 
Here are some ethical questions: Will the militarization of neuroscience really make the world safer, or just trigger a new arms race? Have researchers considered how non-Americans are likely to perceive our neuroweapons program? Some neuroscientists dismiss bionic warriors as a sci-fi fantasy unlikely to be realized soon, if ever. But then should researchers exploit the U.S. military’s gullibility?
 
What about taking advantage of baby boomers—like me--desperately trying to ward off the effects of aging? That brings me to another disturbing neuroeconomics trend. A firm called Posit Science recently started sending me unsolicited emails bragging about how its software programs, which cost about $400 each, have been “clinically proven to help you: Think Faster. Focus Better. Remember More.” The marketing reminded me of cheesy infomercials for exercise gadgets like the Ab Rocket or Bowflex. The Posit Science website revealed, to my surprise, that the company was co-founded by Michael Merzenich of the University of California at San Francisco, an authority on neuroplasticity.
 
Posit Science is one of many companies in the “neurobics” industry, which raked in $265 million in 2008, according to one market-research firm. There is no solid evidence that these brain-fitness devices exercise the brain more than, say, playing Texas Hold ‘Em with buddies or even taking a brisk walk, which you can do for free, a Scientific American review of “brain games” concluded last year. The Stanford Center on Longevity warns that improved performance on software programs may not “translate into improved performance in the complex realm of everyday life.”
 
Neuroscientists are attempting to solve the most profound secrets of human existence. They should adhere to higher ethical standards than defense contractors and infomercial pitchmen.
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer, directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology.

 

Image of piggy bank and brain: iStockphoto/RapidEye

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.