There has been interest in neuroethics for years – the ethical dilemmas involved in everything from brain scans to cognitive enhancement drugs have been long apparent to neuroscientists. Recent research seems to have brought renewed attention the field, as reported in Reuters: Call for “neuroethics” as brain science races ahead. I suppose the mere fact that the big news agency put the word in quotes indicates that for a lot of people neuroethics is a brand-new concept.

The same discoveries that could help the paralyzed use brain signals to steer a wheelchair or write on a computer might also be used to detect possible criminal intent, religious beliefs or other hidden thoughts, these neuroethicists say. “The potential for misuse of this technology is profound,” said Judy Illes, director of the Stanford University neuroethics program in California. “This is a truly urgent situation.”

The new boost came from a research paper published last week that showed neuroscientists can now not only locate the brain area where a certain thought occurs but probe into that area to read out some kinds of thought occurring there. Its author, John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, compared this to learning how to read books after simply being able to find them before. “That is a huge step,” he said.

While experts agree that we are a long way from reading people’s thoughts, even the remote possibility has caught the interest of those who worry about the misuse of technology and science. Of course, neuromarketing is one of the usual suspects, with visions of unethical marketers developing super-ads that will turn consumers into mindless drones. (We’ve noted many times that such super-ads are highly unlikely – with many decades of ad development experience and millions of unique ads behind us, surely some would already have been developed.) Even neuroscientists have some neuromarketing concerns, though, as indicated in the Reuters story:

Haynes estimated his research into unspoken intentions could yield simple applications within the next 5 to 10 years, such as reading a person’s attitude to a company during a job interview or testing consumer preferences through “neuromarketing.” …

“If you’re reading out something for neuromarketing or job interviews, or doing this against people’s wills, that could be considered unethical,” Haynes said.

It isn’t really clear to me what Haynes is considering unethical, particularly since he notes that neuromarketing could be a useful tool in determining consumer preferences. Indeed, this may be one of the areas where neuromarketing can make its most valuable contribution – not picking the best TV commercial, but rather helping product development teams come up with products that really satisfy their consumers. Currently, such decisions are made using guesswork, past market data, focus groups, and the like – tapping into consumer’s real feelings could lead to measurably better products in some categories.

Still, even though the super-ad bogeyman will pop up from time to time, we’re all in favor of a lively neuroethics debate. There are many topics of real concern with today’s rapid advances in neuroscience, and keeping ethical guidelines in pace with science (preferably, anticipating the breakthroughs rather than reacting to them) will be important indeed. We don’t really see much potential for conflict between proper use of neuroscience in marketing and ethical considerations.

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