Resurrecting Brains: Philosophical Questions and New Ethical Territory (guest post)


A team of scientists led by Nenad Sestan (Yale) have “restored circulation to the brains of decapitated pigs and kept the reanimated organs alive for as long as 36 hours,” reports MIT Technology Review. The method used to keep pigs’ brains alive outside the body will work on other animals, including primates, Sestan said. The following is a guest post* by Carolyn Dicey Jennings, assistant professor of philosophy and cognitive science at UC Merced, in which she discusses some of the philosophical issues arising from this research.

Resurrecting Brains: Philosophical Questions and New Ethical Territory
by Carolyn Dicey Jennings

Let’s say for argument’s sake that you have a decapitated pig and you are wondering whether you should bring its brain back to life. What ethical issues might concern you? Some brain researchers have been thinking about this and they have a request: “The researchers say that ways of measuring consciousness need to be developed and strict limits set for them to be able to continue their work with the public’s support.” Here are some ideas, but I would like to hear from other philosophers in the comments:

1. Self

If you are going to bring a pig’s brain back to life for scientific experimentation, you probably want to know whether you have also brought back a self. This will be especially problematic when the research is extended to human brains and selves, which is already on the horizon. Of course, some would argue that there are no such things as selves, but I disagree.

Do pigs have selves? They have not yet passed the mirror self-recognition test, which is used by many as a marker of the self. This test requires that an animal recognize its reflection in a mirror as its own. Passing the test is, in normal cases, impressive—a sign of high intelligence, at the very least. Does failing to pass the test indicate an absence of self? No. That bar is too high. Toddlers often don’t pass the test, but ask those who have spent time with toddlers if they have a self. (Hint: yes.)

What these toddlers and many other animals lack is self-consciousness—-an understanding of themselves as selves. Without self-consciousness how could you know that something has a self? Perhaps having a distinctive personality is one sign of self, which pigs certainly display. But disembodied pig brains probably don’t have easily measurable personalities. So what can we do to rule out the presence of a self in a disembodied brain?

One possibility is to rule out the presence of hierarchical frequency coupling. The brain has measurable wave patterns that are cheap and relatively easy to detect through the use of EEG. As I argue in a book under contract with Cambridge University Press, the self is active when low-frequency waves modulate high-frequency waves. So one suggestion is that researchers look for this signature of the self before proceeding with further experimentation.

2. Consciousness

Separate from the issue of the self is that of consciousness—are disembodied pig brains capable of consciousness? This is a hard question. I am teaching a course on consciousness right now and my students have commented on how difficult it is to determine consciousness in nonhuman cases, such as animals and machines, but few think consciousness is absent in animals. One issue is that of language: nonhuman animals have limited to no language, whereas machines have only superficial language abilities (think Chinese Room, or its modern equivalent). It is difficult to discover if something or someone is conscious if you cannot ask them.

Luckily, a number of promising neural markers of consciousness that do not rely on language have been put forward. One is that of feedback from the frontal cortex, likewise measured using EEG. Unlike many animals, pigs do have a frontal cortex, and thus frontal feedback—signals from the frontal cortex to other parts of the brain. (It is called “feedback” because brain processing is normally considered to go from other areas of the brain “forward” to the frontal cortex, and then back again.) If the disembodied brains of pigs display frontal feedback then I think consciousness is a very real possibility.

Another option is to look at the brain’s response to direct stimulation; brains of conscious humans tend to have widespread activation after direct stimulation, whereas brains of unconscious humans do not. This would be a fairly easy test that would help us to look for consciousness in parts of brains or in animals that do not have a frontal cortex.

An advantage of this latter method is that it might capture low-level consciousness, whereas frontal feedback captures only high-level consciousness. Consider this — the difference between standard and so-called “lucid” dreaming is that lucid dreamers report being aware of the fact that they were dreaming. This ability has been found to correspond with greater frontal cortex activity. But surely one need not be a lucid dreamer to be conscious while dreaming (pace Dennett). So frontal feedback may add the awareness that we are conscious, but the absence of frontal feedback would not necessarily mean an absence of consciousness.

3. Pain

A major topic in research ethics is that of pain; causing unnecessary pain and suffering is to be avoided, and this informs current practice. Can we feel pain without a body? One reason to think otherwise is that pain is attributed to parts of the body that signal damage to the brain through the spinal cord. With neither a body nor spinal cord what pain is there to feel? Is whole-body phantom pain possible?

We don’t yet know what happens to a brain without a body. Scientists and philosophers have argued that many forms of consciousness are either partly or wholly dependent on a body. It would be difficult to test for the presence of pain in a disembodied brain because its neural correlates also register non-painful stimuli.

I don’t have a good suggestion for this issue. (I am hoping others do!) The best idea I have had is to start by looking more closely at dreams during NREM sleep. This is the type of sleep we have without even activity in the eyes, when the whole body is at rest. Those woken up during NREM sleep sometimes report dreams. Further exploration here may give us insight into what experience without a body might look like, and whether it could include pain and suffering.

4. New Ethical Territory

I do think that this research is new ethical territory for us. We already allow scientific experimentation on animals that are likely to have consciousness, selves, and sometimes pain. The difference in this case is that these animals (well, brains) are being brought back to life having already experienced death. This may sound absurd, but if the dying brain hypothesis is correct, many of the sacrificed pigs will likely have had near death experiences (i.e. walking in a tunnel toward the light, euphoria, etc.). What will happen when they are brought back? We don’t know. We don’t know if it will cause needless suffering, and thus we don’t know if this work warrants special protections and guidelines. Creating brains in the lab (which is also on the research agenda, and has its own issues) seems importantly distinct from ending, restarting, and re-ending the lives of conscious beings with histories. This is especially true when the beings in question are disembodied brains, which cannot easily communicate the stress or suffering they might be enduring.


art: Wim Delvoye, Pigs

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Neil Levy
Neil Levy
3 years ago

I am extremely puzzled by the discussion over the ethics of these experiments. There nothing the decapitated pig is at all likely to experience that is worse than what we routinely do to pigs before slaughter.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  Neil Levy
3 years ago

My worry is not so much about the initial death as in bringing back an animal after that death and what the standards should be for that.Report

Danny Weltman
Reply to  Neil Levy
3 years ago

I think someone might coherently think that what we routinely do to pigs before slaughter is unethical, and thus the fact that we do it shouldn’t tell us anything interesting ethically except that we do bad things. Most appositely, it shouldn’t tell us anything interesting ethically about what we can do with regard to resurrecting the brains of pigs.Report

T
T
Reply to  Neil Levy
3 years ago

I think part of the article at least mentions a continuing concern on this, though: we don’t know what such a brain experiences (in the broadest sense). It could be the case that, without a body or spinal cord, the brain has no pain to experience. However, it might be the case that the experience is the most painful experience possible. fMRI studies could potentially give us hints into this, but there will likely still be ethical considerations surrounding this.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  T
3 years ago

Carolyn, that the issues are different doesn’t touch my point. My point is that ethically this is pretty trivial. You may not care (and that’s fine). You may think this is an interesting set of issues. It is. It’s not an *ethically* interesting set of issues. It is a set of trivial ethical issues that might reasonably interest you because they turn on a whole lot of other things that are philosophically rich.

On social media, I’ve seen people claiming that these experiments are highly immoral. It’s that response that puzzles me. It is highly unlikely that these experiments add to pig suffering, which is enormous, anything that isn’t completely trivial in contrast. I am pretty confident these brains have no experiences at all, but unless they were produced on a massive scale (and of course they’re not), it’s a sideshow from an animal welfare perspective.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  Neil Levy
3 years ago

Hi Neil,
It sounds like you are already entering into a debate about the ethics of this, which is just what I would like to see happen. I agree with you about scale, while disagreeing that the difference in scale means that we shouldn’t be concerned about this case. I also agree with you on some of the other issues: you won’t find pork on my plate, and that has been true for most of my life. But there are pragmatic issues here and if you are going to eat pork, you have to kill a pig, whereas it isn’t clear that this research requires resurrection, much less death. To know for sure, I would have to know more about what they are actually trying to accomplish. It is my hope that philosophers will keep an eye on this, because if this is like other issues we will be playing catch up long after the harm has actually been committed.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Carolyn Dicey Jennings
3 years ago

There’s a difference between a debate over the ethics of whether a certain debate is worth having (is it a good investment of my time, given that I am concerned with animal welfare?) and a debate over the first-order ethical issues. The second is relevant to the first, but you don’t need to go deeply into the second to engage in the first. I absolutely disagree that there is a serious worry that “we will be playing catch up long after the harm has actually been committed”. The harm is unlikely to arise in the first place, and is in any case almost certainly trivial in magnitude. There’s no hurry and no worry about being left behind. Again, I don’t think that enquiring into this set of issues is a waste of time. There are a host of issues here, and those issues are relevant to ethics. But the ethics here is a hook for those issues, not something of substantive importance in its own right. You’re a philosopher of mind, and in considering this, you’re doing your thing. My puzzlement much more concerns those who express horror at these experiments. Given the alternative lives these pigs could have had (perhaps did have), that horror can only be the product of a novelty effect.Report

Owen Schaefer
Owen Schaefer
Reply to  Neil Levy
3 years ago

Neil,

I don’t think the existence of much greater levels of animal suffering/animal rights violations in factory farming and experimentation makes this question ethically trivial or uninteresting. By analogy: the existence of substantial deprivation and suffering throughout the world does not make, e.g., the ethics of ensuring adequately informed consent for human subjects research trivial or uninteresting, even if the deprivation and suffering in toto massively outweighs any harms caused by poor consent processes.

The debate is also not pragmatically inert. Perhaps the above sort of experiments should be banned on ethical grounds. While such a ban might not have that much global impact, it’s still a relevant policy consideration that will at least substantially affect some animals and a burgeoning sub-field. This limited scope certainly means that there should be much more ethical attention to animal suffering in factory farming and experimentation more generally than to this particular type of experiment. But a couple ethics papers don’t threaten such a balance.

And sure, there’s some cognitive dissonance in people eating meat while rejecting the above sort of decapitation experiment. A ban or heavy restriction on this type of experiment while permitting factory farming is deeply inconsistent. But (if there really is undue suffering or other wrongs caused by the experiment that’s not well-justified by the aims it can reasonably achieve), it’s better to be inconsistently protecting animal interests/rights than consistently ignoring them. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good (or even, the marginally better).Report

Sam Clark
3 years ago

Tangential to the main issue, but I think that under (1) the OP confuses *the self* with *awareness of self* or *having the concept of oneself*. The latter is what the mirror self-recognition test gets at: does this creature reflexively grasp itself or its selfhood? But something can be a self = a subject of a life without having that particular reflexive capacity.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  Sam Clark
3 years ago

Agreed—I mention that a few paragraphs in.Report

Sam Clark
Reply to  Carolyn Dicey Jennings
3 years ago

Ah, fair enough: I read it too fast. Your piece on attention is really interesting, too.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  Sam Clark
3 years ago

Thanks!!Report