Neuroethics: A conversation with Dr. Sara Goering

Wayne Gillam

Dr. Sara Goering, a leader of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering's (CSNE's) Neuroethics Research Thrust, holds an undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Illinois and earned her doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Colorado. Because of her educational background and work in disability and medical ethics, she was sought after and joined the CSNE in 2012 to lead research work in the area of neuroethics.

Neuroethics is a field that studies the implications neuroscience and neural engineering have for human self-understanding as well as the ethical, legal and social impacts of this science and technology. Dr. Goering's work at the CSNE includes studying the effects of neural technology on an individual's identity, agency (the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own free choices) and sense of autonomy, as well as helping to create better-informed ethical guidelines and education for neural engineers.

The following is excerpted from a wide-ranging conversation I had with Dr. Goering about how her background helped to prepare her for the work she is doing today, her current projects at the CSNE, and some helpful advice she has for aspiring philosophers and ethicists.

Can you tell me more about your educational background?

I was a psychology undergraduate major, actually neuropsychology. I worked in a lab for a while on learning and memory topics, and then I later worked with human subjects, studying interhemispheric processing and speed-times for spelling tasks and other things. Although psychology was my primary area of study, all the while that I was an undergrad psych major, I was a philosophy minor, taking classes and loving the topics that we were covering. I ended up in the lab late at night doing data analysis or sometimes running subjects for the human psych lab, using any spare time to talk with psychology grad students and faculty about philosophy, including lots of interesting thought experiments I was introduced to in my classes.

I took time off after my undergrad years and traveled a little bit, worked for a physiology professor on course development, and then decided that I wanted to go to grad school. I enjoyed psychology, but I found that I wanted to explore the bigger questions, so I talked to some of my philosophy professors and applied to grad school at the University of Colorado to study philosophy. I think I was lucky to get in, because I didn’t have a full, undergraduate degree in Philosophy. When I started grad school, I always felt a little bit behind everybody else, who had already done more reading and study of philosophy than I had. But on the other hand, I think it was a good way to start, because I had good reason not to know things, so I was always willing to ask questions (and not so worried about feeling like an imposter). If you’re able to do that, then you can engage more fully with the material.

I ended up working on a dissertation that was focused on ethical issues in human genetics. That was a time when the human genome project was first funded, and lots of interesting questions were in play, about free will, about our identities and about control over data. A lot of similar issues, actually, to things that we see with the work in neural technologies.

Looking back, what sparked your interest in ethics and philosophy?

That’s a good question. When you look around the world, you see injustices and problems. Most of us have a sense that something should be done about those. It’s not always clear, though, what the best solutions are to large-scale problems like homelessness or climate change issues. Philosophers have something to add, by thinking analytically and giving a conceptual framework or structure to how we might map out and organize the landscape of what the problems are. I wouldn’t say philosophy can, by itself, solve any of these problems, but it can help to lay out and clarify exactly where the push-points or difficulties are. Honestly, in philosophy, some of the attraction is thinking about really interesting puzzles, but puzzles that matter for how we live. In respect to what we’re working on now at the CSNE, there are such interesting questions with neurotechnology around identity, authenticity and agency.

How would you describe what you’re working on right now at the CSNE?

I would say we have two different kinds of projects. One is about questions of identity and agency. We think of brain pacemakers as different from cardiac pacemakers, insulin pumps or other medical devices, because we tend to identify more closely with our brains. We’re really interested in the issues that come up when we have neuroprosthetics that might disrupt or make us rethink questions of identity, or that might disrupt or make us rethink our sense of agency in the world. How can we think of design schemes or control schemes of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) or deep brain stimulation (DBS) that will allow people to retain the parts of identity or agency that are most important to them?

So that’s one part, then the other thing is thinking generally about ethical guidelines and ethics education for neural engineers. It’s great to have philosophers or other ethicists working on particular issues, but to have broader impact, we want to create a climate in which engineers themselves have an awareness of the values issues that arise in relation to their work, rather than fully needing to rely on expertise of somebody from the outside.

Tell me about one of your recent projects.

One of the things our ethics thrust has done is run focus groups with end-users or prospective end-users of the technology. We’re working with people who have spinal cord injury, people with stroke, and with members of the general public. We recently did a focus group in Boston with people who were part of the clinical trials for open-loop DBS for depression. One interesting thing about this study was that people in our small study didn’t know anyone else who had been in the trial. It was the first time for them talking with anyone else who had similar experiences. They were exchanging numbers and Facebook connections later, wanting to stay in touch and share information, because they found their experiences with DBS to be interesting and a little bit different from what they expected. Then they’re alone with that information, maybe telling their physician, but that’s the only person who ever hears.

There was no group for them to talk about their experience with DBS before this?

No. It’s interesting, right?! In the focus group, you hear one experience and then you hear from somebody else, who has a somewhat different experience. You can figure things out together, as opposed to doing something like an interview, or a survey, where it’s just one person offering their take on the subject. There’s room for both methods, but something interesting can happen in a focus group, where you have people who have some shared experience, whether it’s using a DBS or living with a spinal cord injury, talking about the kinds of devices that are being developed, and what they think about those devices, expressing what their hopes and expectations but also concerns and reservations would be. Our aim is to bring the responses from these focus groups back to the CSNE engineers and see if there are ways to incorporate this feedback into the design of neural devices, or potentially shift directions when necessary. We’re just trying to bridge that divide that’s often there, between the engineer and the end-user population.

For aspiring philosophers and ethicists who might want to pursue a career direction in applied ethics or applied philosophy, and put that knowledge to work in a field like engineering, what words of advice would you give them?

One thing I would say is that it’s really important to know something about the field you’re intending to talk about and work in. So, an applied ethicist needs to know about philosophy, but he or she also needs to know about medicine if they are going into medical ethics, something about environmental science if they are going into environmental ethics, and something about engineering and the way it’s practiced if they are going into the ethics of neural engineering. I would encourage interdisciplinary studies, or at least some experiences where you’re getting a better understanding of the work that’s being done in an area where you think philosophy is going to be relevant, or an area where you want to take it.

Do you think students should minor in that particular area of interest?

I think it would be helpful, but there are lots of ways to get that experience. Working in a lab is another way, or taking some classes. But then I think it’s tough when you get to grad school, because so many jobs really are not interdisciplinary. You really need to have your graduate training in a recognized field. Still, even if you need to have a primary discipline of specialization, I’d encourage people to reach out from there. The interdisciplinary work can be incredibly rewarding and valuable.

What do you think helped lay a foundation for the work you are doing today, at the CSNE?

In grad school, I tried to take classes outside of Philosophy. For example, I took grad classes in Psychology, and I took a seminar on “Bioethics and the Law” at the Law School. I participated in an interdisciplinary reading group with faculty and grads from biology. I recognized that my interests weren’t fully contained within philosophy. They have this interdisciplinary feel to them. That’s probably part of what brought me here, to the CSNE.

This holiday season, consider giving to the CSNE Neuroethics fund. The fund supports undergraduate and graduate students who are studying at the CSNE.

For more information about the CSNE and its work in neuroethics, Please contact Dr. Sara Goering.