The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Can the BRAIN Initiative “Better understand who we are?”

Chalmers“All of us are interested in the brain because it’s the physical organ of the mind,” said David Chalmers, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness at New York University and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Consciousness at Australian National University in his presentation to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission) today.

Chalmers spoke to the Bioethics Commission on questions that the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative might address with regard to the mind versus brain distinction.

He argued that the point of the BRAIN Initiative isn’t to study the brain, it’s ultimately to understand the mind so that we can treat disorders and “better understand who we are.”

Chalmers highlighted that there is an absence of a unified theory of how the brain functions. In the Human Genome Project, the precursor to projects like the BRAIN Initiative, Chalmers states that scientists came to the project with a solid theory of the molecular basis of DNA and a solid concept of genetics. Neuroscience does not yet have such a unified theory of brain functionality, let alone a theory of the connection between brain and mind.

Put simply, how is it that the brain inside our head supports thinking and consciousness?

Chalmers believes that the BRAIN Initiative will provide a set of tools for dynamically monitoring neuronal activity in the brain at a much finer spatial and temporal resolution. He notes that simply mapping the brain won’t itself give us a theory of the connection between brain and mind, although it may help us to develop such a theory.

Chalmers raised the example of a giving a blind person a map of the brain of someone seeing color. While the blind person may gain a great deal of information, it will not tell a blind person what the experience of seeing red is like. Even after mapping the brain, some elements of the mind/brain problem will still be with us. But Chalmers states that the BRAIN Initiative could still provide significant benefit, giving us the “possibility of correlating complex and specific states of brain with complex and specific states of mind.”

The ethical issues, Chalmers acknowledges, are of course complex, particularly the issue of privacy. Currently, mental states are private, known only to their subjects and brought through in behavior. Brain imaging is challenging that—for example, a vegetative patient when put in a scanner shows signs of consciousness and awareness. If the BRAIN initiative works out, says Chalmers, these issues will be magnified.

What if, he argues, you put a research subject in a scanner, ‘read’ their brain state and it “turns out they killed or are planning to kill someone. What,” he asks, “do you do with that?”

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

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