“There is a sacred realm of privacy for every man and woman where he makes his choices and decisions–a realm of his own essential rights and liberties into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude.” -Geoffrey Fisher
In the times of social networking, the Internet, and personal information everywhere being made public, there is no question that we are experiencing a loss of privacy left and right. One might say that the last bastion of privacy – our own thoughts – is all we have to hold onto (although some people, driven by the age of Twitter, have taken to publishing all of those, too).
But a segment on 60 Minutes last year brought to light that even these private thoughts are up for grabs, with brain scanning technologies “making it possible for the first time in human history to peer directly into the brain to read out the physical make up of our thoughts, some would say, to read out minds.” Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI for short) enables us to scan and see the metabolic activity inside the brain, allowing researchers to begin to identify where thoughts occur, and what they might look like, by measuring changes in blood flow and oxygenation in the brain and linking it with certain mental states. The implications – for the law, for our notions of privacy, for our conceptions of free will– are profound. “We all take as a given that we’ll never really know for sure, that the content of our thoughts is our own. Private, secret, unknowable by anyone else,” Lesley Stahl, 60 Minutes correspondent says. “Until now, that is.”
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“Every era has its own defining drug.” – Margaret Talbot
With the high availability of so-called “cognitive enhancing drugs” like Ritalin, Adderall, and Provigil on college campuses, students everywhere are facing the choice of whether or not to take non-prescribed medications to help them “perform better” in school. Studies show that anywhere between 20-35% of college students have used one of these medications without a prescription in their college career, but an informal survey would likely reveal an even higher percentage, as the use of these medications is on the rise. Many claim these drugs help them concentrate, study longer, and juggle more tasks by creating more productive hours in the day. Others rely on them in a crunch, during midterms, finals, or the night before a big test, when the clock is ticking and assignments are due, and there doesn’t seem to be enough time –or brain power–to get everything that needs to get done, done.
The question of whether to use these “cognitive enhancing drugs” poses many ethical concerns– some rooted in the very immediate and direct impact of these drugs on the developing brains of young people, and some rooted more in what these drugs say philosophically about the direction our society is headed in. And with the rate of use tripling within the past ten years, along with the fact that dozens of new cognitive stimulants are currently in the pharmaceutical pipeline, it seems an important issue to examine. Should we embrace the use of these drugs, in hopes of them making us smarter, more efficient, and more productive? Or should we be wary of using them, concerned with the risks that they pose not only to our brains, but to our own personal and societal values?
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Who decides what’s right, what is socially appropriate, and what is societally acceptable when it comes to the use of things that alter your brain function?
It’s interesting to consider how we decide what the rules are about which drugs are deemed socially acceptable and which ones are not. We condone (not only condone, but actively rely on) certain substances like caffeine, guzzling down cups of coffee and cans of Red Bull without a second thought about their “ethical implications.” We condemn marijuana as illegal but allow a much more dangerous drug – alcohol – to be consumed at will after the age of 21. We think it’s permissible to use coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes to pull an all nighter to complete work but would gape at someone snorting a line of cocaine for the same reason. How are these lines we draw–the ones that call a certain brain-altering substance taboo and another one completely embraceable– determined? Do they involve a careful assessment of their effects on the brain? A standardized measure of risks? Do they come from some subjective evaluation grandfathered in by socially determined forces?
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Advances in our understanding of the brain – and subsequently, in our understanding of how to manipulate it—are raising profound moral and ethical questions going into the 21st century. How do we evaluate our course of action in the brain sciences in a morally principled and responsible way?
In his lecture, “Autonomy and the History of American Bioethics” at Santa Clara in May 2009, Bioethicist Albert Jonsen explained that we are facing unchartered ethical territory in the field of neuroscience which previous bioethical frameworks are ill equipped to handle.
The Technological Citizen is a forum to explore and exchange ideas about the issues that arise from modern technologies. A wide variety of topics will be explored, including the ethics of cognitive enhancement, genetic testing, and biotechnologies, as well as the way in which technology impacts our relationship with other people, the environment, and ourselves.
Postings will fall under five basic categories:
Technology and Society
Technology and The Environment
Ethical Issues in Health and Biotechnology
The Future of Technology
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Thanks for checking out the blog! I look forward to hearing your ideas about these topics.