Last week I read a scary news report. It bought to mind totalitarian images of George Orwell’s 1984 or Phillip K. Dick’s Minority Report. Since I’m trained by people like Pema Chödrön and Robert McKee and Natalie Goldberg to pay attention to the stories that scare me, I did what anyone in their right mind would do – I pulled Michael Gazzaniga’s book, The Ethical Brain off the shelf and began reading about neuroethics. Why? Because as more and more knowledge and understanding about the brain emerges, it’s going to have greater and greater impact on our laws and culture. To me it seems better to be reasonably informed than repeatedly emotionally reactive.


Dr. Michael Gazzaniga

Dr. Michael Gazzaniga

Neuroethics is concerned with “the rights and wrongs of the treatment of, or enhancement of the human brain.” Gazzaniga considers this area to be one where knowledgeable people do their best to come up with a brain-based philosophy of life. He’s not particularly concerned about giving science or government an inch, fearful of them sliding down the “slippery slope” and taking a mile. And for good reason.

Gazzaniga argues that the direction that human evolution and brain development appears to be taking us is towards a universal set of biological responses to moral dilemmas – a sort of organic ethics is slowly evolving in the development of healthy brains. It’s for this reason, in part, that despots with unhealthy brains inevitably become overthrown, a high percentage of criminals with similar brains eventually get caught, and abhorrent practices that promote unnecessary suffering, like male and female circumcision sooner or later become eradicated. It’s also why evil scientists will never conquer the world with an army of “humanzees,” a human-chimp hybrid. The direction of brain development is oriented towards the good.

One of the ethical questions Gazzaniga attempts to grapple with is: “When does an embryo become a person?”  He argues that the joining of egg and sperm is not the beginning of life since sperm and egg were both alive before the union. At what point on the journey from two cells to the 50 trillion that eventually come to make up an adult human should this creation be considered a person?

zygoteTo those who have actually studied and borne direct witness to this microscopic early period of development, Gazzaniga reports that there is a clear perceptual moment when an embryo becomes a person. It is an unmistakable moment that is “stark, defining and real.” This is an easily recognizable change that takes place during the eighth week of pregnancy. Should this be the moment when an embryo is granted moral status? Or should it begin at conception? Or at fourteen days when an individual zygote (the size of the period under the question mark at the end of this sentence) is believed to be “cemented,” that is, no longer capable of becoming twins? Or perhaps at day 40 when, on average, primitive unorganized electrical activity first begins in the brain? (Gazzaniga also presents a fascinating discussion on the issue of when, once conferred, moral status should be withdrawn, for example with people in a coma or with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. But that’s a different discussion).

Gazzaniga does not profess to know the answer to this question of precisely when moral status should be conferred, and neither do I. I suspect though that the decision is rightly left to us as individuals and that we’d probably be better served not having science or big government making such decisions for us. But I might be wrong.

Sin Bins for Brain-Damaging Families

The story *** that upset me last week was one where big government apparently did make such an absolute decision. The government of Great Britain decided to place 20000 families under 24-hour in-house, constant closed circuit TV monitoring. The very idea of someone watching everything I do in my own home every moment of every day makes my skin crawl! And yet, these are disorganized families who appear to be disrupting the community and doing serious damage to their children. Is placing them in jail and their kids in foster care a better option? It’s certainly a more costly one, according to the article. And jailing people violates The First Law of Social Neuroscience: “It takes a more organized brain to help organize a less organized brain.” Putting people in jail where they regularly mix and interact with people often more abused and brain-damaged than they are does little to improve their neurology.

So, while a story like this may initially get my limbic juices all fired up, I’m resolved not to let my fear of imagined extreme possibilities hinder what potential good may actually come out of programs like this one.

*** I’ve since come to find out this story was not factually accurate!

What about you?