Neuroscience, Intended and Unintended Consequences

brain in headNeuroscience offers us exciting possibilities for enhancing human learning and performance. In the next decade, we are going to learn things we can’t even dream of right now. But along with the dreams we may be in for some nightmares. Here’s a couple of things for all of us to think about.

Should Employers Use Brain Scans to Make Employment Decisions?

Recently scientists at Yale University announced that they can determine a person’s intelligence and even their cognitive strengths from a brain scan. Basically – and this is a gross over-simplification of the research – they found that the stronger the connections between different regions of the brain, the more skilled the study participants would be on a series of tests and puzzles designed to measure intelligence. This result makes sense, given that we already know that the thicker the neural connection the easier it is to access and apply information that we have learned. What is troubling to me is the speculative, almost gushing extrapolation of these results into predictions that employers might soon be screening employees for specific skills based on brain scan results.

Can We Predict a Child’s IQ Based on Brain Scans? Should we?

In an earlier study, researchers at Washington University, St. Louis, measured the strength of neural connections in the prefrontal cortex in children and found a possible connection between the strength of these connections and cognitive performance. Again, the results were published along with speculation about future applications of this information, including deciding which children go to college prep schools and which ones go to technical schools. Is this really the education system we want for our children?

Can Neuroscience Determine Who is Guilty or How They Should be Punished?

Discoveries about the adolescent brain have raised questions about trying and sentencing juvenile defendants in the same way as we treat as treat adults. Other studies may have identified physical differences in the brains of psychopaths and other violent criminals. Will the day come when we don’t need judges and juries, just neuroscientists and the nearest brain imaging machine? Is it possible that someone is walking around with the physical brain characteristics of a killer who will never harm another human being in his or her lifetime?

Neuro-Marketing May Help Companies Predispose the Buying Decision

In a whitepaper from the American Marketing Association, researchers using electroencephalography (EEG) headsets have been able to study subjects’ reactions to different advertisements, images, offers and other components, helping markets make their ads nearly irresistible to potential customers. The work also presents opportunities for trainers and elearning designers to craft more compelling, effective learning, essentially “selling” learning to the participant. Could that really be a bad thing?

What’s the Big Deal?

Maybe I’m worrying about nothing. Maybe these exciting discoveries are precursors to a brave new world in enhancing human performance. Maybe I should just “drink the cool-aid,” strap a headset onto all my corporate training participants and show teachers how to screen average children out of the college-bound track so they can spend more time on children with better neural connections. But it doesn’t feel right. More than one scientist is beginning to express concerns that our wisdom isn’t keeping up with our knowledge where the brain is concerned. MIT political science professor, Robert Blank explores the possible unintended consequences of neuroscience in his book, Intervention in the Brain: Politics, Policy, and Ethics (Basic Bioethics). The International Neuroethics Society provides resources, education and sound thinking about our future as brain-aware humans, but they can only do so much.

It’s going to be up to Us

As learning professionals, we aren’t the ones who are making the seemingly daily discoveries that are reshaping our world, but we are the ones who will decide how some of these discoveries are applied. These decisions are likely to be made slowly, incrementally over a relatively long period of time. If we aren’t careful, we may wake up one day and ask ourselves, “How did it all get so out of hand?” It’s time to start thinking about the ethics of neuroscience – past time, really. Cartoonist Walt Kelly put the words in his character, Pogo back in 1969. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Let’s hope we don’t end up saying the same in a few years.

 

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