Curious – Mind Brain Machine: Unethical Neuroscience

Mind Brain Machine Curious

PBS is airing a program called “Curious” which is described as:

CURIOUS immerses viewers into a fascinating world where science touches people’s lives. Two one-hour episodes profile the innovative men and women pushing the limits of knowledge and applying cutting-edge science to improve lives. Short, character-driven segments combine verite storytelling with stylized visualizations, graphics and animations designed to engage both viewers’ intellect and emotions. These moving, human, funny and sometimes strange stories connect science to real life: a personal crisis inspires a hunt for a cancer cure; artificial eyes restore sight to a blind woman; people learn to function without the use of large parts of their brain and engineers race to find a clean, sustainable fuel for the next century and beyond.

In the “Mind Brain Machine” segment, some of the neuroscientists created a scenario for volunteers where they had to make decisions about how to allocate meals to a group of poor children in Africa.

For example the participants could give 4 meals to each of two children or they could give 10 meals to one child. The neuroscientists told the participants that whatever they decided would actually come to pass.

Giving as it turned out was most gratifying for the participants. And the neuroscientists were able to measure the parts of the brain where the gratification of giving could be measured.

And the experiment should have ended at that point.

But then the neuroscientists changed the experiment and commanded the participants to take meals away from the poor children much in the same way as meals were given in the earlier part of the experiment. For example, the participants had to decide to take away 3 meals from two poverty stricken children or take away 5 meals from one child.

The neuroscientists explained the reason for this experiment was to measure blood flow to different parts of the brain as the participants proceeded during the different stages of the experiment.

The disclaimer at the end of the program read that the participants in the experiment donated over 11,000 meals to these children from some “Caanan school”. This is supposed to justify the experiment.

We believe that to play with people’s lifes like this in the name of science is truly disturbing and unethical.

Taking food away from poor children is absolutely insane.

It makes you wonder about the mental state of the neuroscientists themselves. Perhaps though they actually have a functioning brain, but are so focused on studying the mind (at all costs), that they have lost their heart and soul.

Either way, the neuroscientists that conducted the experiment could have taken a few moments longer to dream up an experiment that would have better accomplished their goals of the program without crossing the ethical line.

The neuroscientists bragged that no one had ever walked out of one of their experiments. However the neuroscientists failed to make the connection, when at least one participant simply stopped making choices toward the end. And complained that the decisions were “too hard” to make. Perhaps a nice way of saying “this is wrong”.

Perhaps the fat-cat psychologists may one-day find themselves deathly hungry only to have an irresponsible party ration or withhold food from them.

There is enough food in the world. And there is no reason for anyone to starve. PBS bears some responsibility for sponsoring programming like this “Curious” episode that exploits the condition of starving children.

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2 Responses to “Curious – Mind Brain Machine: Unethical Neuroscience”

  1. If you say the Curious program and have a comment, please post it here.

    Also if you know the name(s) of the neuroscientists that ran this experiment, please post it here.

  2. The “Curious – Mind Brain Machine” was indeed unethical Neuroscience. We can all be more than a little bit saddened by this horrific example of academic irresponsibility practiced by Caltech researchers.

    Steven Quartz, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Caltech, was academic advisor for this so-called “research”. The irresponsible miscreants under his tutelage were his two doctoral students:

    - Ming Hsu (Post Doctoral Researcher at CalTech)
    - Cedric Anen (Ph.D. Student at CalTech)

    The Canaan Children’s Home in Uganda, Africa was the orphanage where the pair took food away from orphans.

    The following quote from Ming Hsu is absolutely unbelievable:

    “We had a thought. What’s the worst thing we could make people do? What is the hardest moral decision? And we kinda came up with taking food from a child. And then we thought, well ok what’s next? Taking food from a child in an orphanage.”

    Note: Ming Hsu’s quotes were a bit difficult to transcribe not only due to his lack of ethics but also his complete disregard for humanity. The whole time he was saying this, Ming Hsu was snickering and giggling almost uncontrollably — on camera.

    The idea of starving these brainless Neuroscience graduate students and their numskull academic adviser (Steven Quartz) is a great idea. No one is beyond redemption, but for them the road will probably be by way of hunger which would teach them a lesson or two about academic ethics and responsibility.

    Bottom line: There are plenty of other ways to study “moral decision making” without exploiting the conditions of starving children. And no. A donation to an orphanage does not make up for irresponsibility.