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Neuroethics, Gazzaniga, Ethical Brain


I read Michael Gazzaniga's The Ethical Brain (2005) in Japanese translation, and I wrote a book review for a news agency, which will be published in newspapers later in this month. This is one of the first books that deal with the issues of "neuroethics." Neuroethics is a fairly new word, which was created in 2003 to discuss ethical problems raised by the observation and manipulation of the human brain by using drugs, silicon tips, fMRI, and other high-tech devices. Specialists predicate that in the future we will be able to see through a person's inner emotions and ideas from outside his/her brain, but isn't this violation of one's privacy? Or should it be acceptable in order to detect terrorists? What about the enhancement of memory and IQ of a child? It might be possible to do that by giving certain drugs to the child, or by operating certain parts of the child's brain.

It is disappointed that Gazzaniga does not fully discuss the above "neuroethical" questions. Most pages are about current topics on brain science and psychology, particularly topics of human cognition. But his discussion is interesting, especially the interpretation of data acquired from his experiments on patients with the split brain (The split brain has been one of the main topics of Gazzaniga's brain research). From his research, he concludes that the left hemisphere is the locus of the function of creating meaning. And he says that the frontal lobe is activated when buddhist monks are meditating, and the temporal lobe is activated when one is having a vivid religious experience, including out-of-body experiences. He suggests that the combination of these brain functions have helped create various forms of religions around the world.

Gazzaniga says that in a similar manner, our moral judgment might be able to be predicted by looking inside one's brain and detecting the activated areas of the brain. It is discovered that a certain area is activated when one makes a judgment on a certain moral question.

It is interesting to foresee how many areas of humanities will be replaced by future interdisciplinary brain sciences. In the near future, we will have to understand the brain function more and more in order to understand our inner activities. Probably psychology (including Freudian ones) will be merged into brain science sooner or later. Then, what about philosophy, ethics, and religious studies? There will be harsh debates over some fundamental concepts of philosophy and ethics between philosophers and brain scientists. (We can see some early examples even now.) I think one of the challenges of philosophy is to point out the theoretical limitation of brain science, that is to say, what brain science cannot understand theoretically.

Last year a research group on neuroethics was established by biologist Osamu Sakura, associate professor at the University of Tokyo. I have not attended their meetings yet, but this year I want to join their conference and see what they are discussing. Neuroethics is a really interesting topic, however, we have not fully known what we should discuss in the name of neuroethics. And I am curious to know what life studies can contribute to neuroethics.

Photo: The entrance of National Museum of Art, Osaka

 -- M.Morioka www.lifestudies.org

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