Philosopher Explores Ethics of Brain Technologies

Sara Goering, University of Washington
Philosopher Sara Goering, who works with researchers creating neural technologies, said, "Our brains really are so intimate to who we are, and that's exactly the part of us that we're now talking about engineering or tinkering with." (Image credit: Sara Goering, University of Washington)

This ScienceLives article was provided to Live Science in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Sara Goering's first experimental work with brains was in a learning and memory lab, as an undergraduate majoring in psychology. "It was interesting stuff," she said. "I liked studying brains, and looking for differences in those brains." 

This early experience with brains has come full circle for Goering. It now helps inform her current work with the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, an Engineering Research Center (ERC), which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Center researchers are creating new technologies that help restore function and mobility to people with neurological disorders.

Working in an emerging field known as neuroethics, Goering investigates ethical issues that are likely to develop from the use of neural technologies. Her team is currently comparing existing interventions for human bodies and brains to new technologies being developed. As part of this work, the team is seeking out best practices and sharing information with colleagues across the country, including researchers at the Quality of Life Technology ERC, also funded by NSF. 

In 2014, Goering and her colleagues will conduct a study with individuals who have spinal cord injuries to explore potential concerns about technologies and procedures such as spinal microstimulation, human exoskeletons and "smart" prosthetics controlled by brain-computer interfaces.

Name: Sara Goering Institution: University of Washington Hometown: Seattle, Wash. Field of Study: Philosophy

What is your field of research and why did you choose it?

I work in ethics, bioethics and neuroethics. I approach ethics from a philosophical perspective because my Ph.D. is in philosophy. But there are people that do bioethics from legal or religious or other perspectives. I ended up in philosophy in part because I like really big questions that are important, about how we understand ourselves and our place in the world.

What was the best professional advice you ever received?

Early on, it was do what you really love to do. I talked with advisors about whether I should really go into philosophy, or not. By and large they said, "If it's what you love doing, try it. But be aware as you're going for what you really love that it might not work out as a career, so have a back-up plan." As the graduate program director for our department, I share that (advice) with students, too. 

Please describe your current research.

One question we've looked at is: How are pharmaceuticals different from neural engineering? We seem very comfortable using pharmaceuticals to treat different conditions. But are these drugs significantly different in any way from the sorts of interventions we're recommending here? 

We might also compare neural technologies to a cardiac pacemaker or other engineered devices. Those devices seem less close to our sense of identity. 

What are you most proud of?

One of the things that make me most happy about the work I get to do is that people from different schools of thought are collaborating on research. I'm not sitting in philosophy thinking about theories and writing only for other philosophers. I'm trying to do something that will really make a difference. 

What was your biggest laboratory disaster, and how did you deal with it?

One of the things that I had to grapple with was how scientists and engineers look at ethics. I worry that scientists and engineers look at ethics like an oversight, like a finger-shaker, "you can't do that" regulatory hurdle or obstacle to the work that they're doing. 

I want it to be a collaborative practice of trying to think through the big questions about the research. I want to be able to criticize and critique the direction of the research, rather than thinking we need people to figure out it's a good for them. Maybe it's not, and then maybe we want to redirect what we're doing. So this is not a disaster, but it's a tension that is involved in the kind of work that I'm doing.

What would surprise people most about your work?

It might depend on who we're surprising. 

Non-disabled people often see disability as a bad thing: It's an individual problem, a pathology or deficit of the person. A lot of the disability studies work that I've done focuses on a more socio-political association with disability. That's not to say you ignore differences in the body, but you instead emphasize the ways in which environment can be accommodating (or not) to different ways of getting through the world. 

It's surprising to most non-disabled people because they never thought of disability that way. In this work in the center, one of our priorities has been to include what we call "end-user" perspective early on in the process. An end-user is someone who will be using these new technologies.

What advice would you give to an aspiring engineer, scientist or philosopher?

It's important to reach out beyond your main discipline, whatever it happens to be. Doing purely theoretical work isn't going to be productive. You need to know something about other fields. That might mean putting yourself in contact with a lab or getting in touch with a hospital — whatever your specific area of interest is — so that you have that real experience, so you make sure anything you're theorizing about touches down somewhere, that it can make a difference. 

What is the biggest unanswered question in your field?

There are lots of unanswered questions about what neural technologies mean for identity, and moral, legal, privacy issues. 

In one of our testbeds, or research areas, we may have a brain-computer interface that controls a robotic device   If I'm actually controlling it with my thinking, is there a way in which my body schema expands? If the robotic device could extend away from me, is there a way in which now my identity is co-located? It's fascinating what that could do to our notions of identity. It's just unexplored, uncharted territory at this point.

Why should my [mom, kid, sister, grandpa] be excited about your research?

These are technologies that are likely coming. We want to be really clear about what direction they go in, what concerns they bring and how we might address those concerns. It will be too late to address them if the technologies are out and on the market by the time we start thinking about it. It's important to talk about it now. 

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in ScienceLives articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.

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