Webinar explores how cultural contexts shape neuroethics

April 22, 2024

Webinar finds new relevance

Following this year's annual meeting of the International Neuroethics Society (INS), we are re-visiting our webinar in 2023 – "Neuroethics in Context: Perspectives from Latin America". Abel Wajnerman Paz, one of the speakers from the webinar event was also featured during the INS annual meeting on a panel discussing neurorights.

Below we provide a summary of the webinar, and we invite you to re-watch the talks and consider how we might better incorporate different cultural contexts into a global neuroethics.

Summary of the event

In recent times, different national, regional, and cultural sensibilities are actively participating in discussions on how best to address the ethical, legal, and social implications of neuroscience and neurotechnology. These discussions are not only about how neuroscientific advances can affect people who identify with diverse sensibilities, but also (and importantly) about how diverse cultural perspectives can provide novel insights that help advance neuroethical research with global implications. On October 5, 2023, the UC Berkeley Kavli Center for Ethics, Science, and the Public (KCESP) hosted an international webinar on this topic with speakers Arleen Salles, Karen Herrera-Ferrá, Abel Wajnerman Paz, and Renato Cardoso. This webinar was moderated by KCESP postdoc José Muñoz.

The main goals of the webinar Neuroethics in Context: Perspectives from Latin America consisted in: (1) discussing the current state of neuroethics in the context of Latin American countries (esp. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico) to bring the Latin American neuroethics conversation to the United States, Europe, and beyond; (2) fostering discussions about the current state of neuroethics that be culturally mindful and inclusive; and (3) learning about how different cultural contexts can contribute novel points of view in global neuroethics conversations. Some of the interesting questions addressed were why integrating contextual perspectives is essential within international debates on neuroethics; what is the state of the art in neurolaw in Latin America; and how (and why) Chile and other Latin American countries are leading the way into so-called neurorights.

In her talk, "Whose Neuroethics? Which Context?" Dr. Arleen Salles (Institute of Neuroethics Founding Board, Director of Neuroethics Buenos Aires, International Neuroethics Society Board Member) stressed the need to discuss neuroethics' presence across borders, which implies moving from a “translation” from Global North to South toward a mutual interchange of ideas. She emphasized the ethical relevance of cultures—as they inform about moral values and norms—as well as their epistemic relevance—as they ideally give individuals the tools to interpret the world. Dr. Salles also underlined the fact that neuroethics is still pending moving from a cultural awareness approach (i.e., acknowledgment of “others”) to real engagement, not only through intercultural understanding but also by identifying areas of mutual interest among cultures to explore reaching some kind of consensus.

In "Neuroethics beyond Borders: Experiencing the Mexican Context", Dr. Karen Herrera-Ferrá (Mexican Association of Neuroethics Founder and former President, International Neuroethics Society Board Member) explained that “context” is a multidimensional concept that can refer to countries, cultures, economic and political systems, or individual psychological factors. She called for mindfulness about the fact that conceptualizations of traits related to the brain and mind (e.g., consciousness, self, free will, and identity) are contextually and culturally shaped. She also described how syncretism of different historical and ethnocultural traditions in Latin America influenced in shaping these conceptualizations, and mentioned the example of Mexico—where Spanish and indigenous traditions converge in many aspects of social life. Finally, Dr. Herrera-Ferrá highlighted the importance of breaking down language barriers in neuroethics cross-cultural engagement.

Dr. Abel Wajnerman Paz, PhD (Assistant Professor of Neuroethics, Institute for Applied Ethics, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile) discussed "Chile as a Neuroprotection Lab". Dr. Wajnerman Paz began by analyzing a constitutional amendment in Chile (October 2021) on the protection of brain activity and the information derived from it. He then examined the Girardi v. Emotiv ruling by the Supreme Court of Chile, a recent protection remedy that granted the rights to privacy of brain data and psychological integrity in this country. After that, Dr. Wajnerman Paz scrutinized the implications of a reconceptualization of the right to mental integrity that consists on moving from mere access to mental health to the protection against direct physical or psychological harm. He argued that a mental health approach to mental integrity allows to better articulate a clear distinction between integrity, autonomy, and identity.

Dr. Renato Cardoso (Associate Professor of Law and Vice-Coordinator for the Postgraduate Program on Neuroscience, Federal University of Minas Gerais) gave the final talk of the webinar, titled "The Neurolaw Revolution—and Perspectives from Brazil". As a highly populated country, Brazil shows specific issues regarding neurotechnology: while a large part of the population have access to this technology, another great number of people lack access not only to neurotechnology but also to basic healthcare services. Furthermore, its health system suffers from poor funding, inequality, inefficiency, anti-scientism, and lack of sufficient evidence-based public policies. Dr. Cardoso also stressed the need for neuroethics cross-cultural studies, due to problems in replicating research from the Global North into the South—as it is the case with experimental philosophy and social psychology studies on free will. He concluded his talk by analyzing a recent constitutional amendment proposal in Brazil to introduce neurorights.

The Neuroethics in Context webinar ended with a joint discussion session moderated by Dr. Muñoz, in which, among other things, speakers talked about how their own professional experiences in different parts of the world contributed to their particular understanding of the issues related to contextual neuroethics. They also agreed on highlighting a critical challenge still pending: working toward developing tools to ensure that the contextual and international components of neuroethics will lead to actual cross-cultural engagement. Additionally, attendees engaged during the discussion in two ways. First, they replied to the following poll question: “Which term first comes to mind when you think about context in neuroethics?” Among four options, “culture” was the dominant answer (69% of votes) ahead of others such as “diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI),” “regional location,” and “other.” Second, attendees had the opportunity to make questions related to: (1) cultural differences not only between regions of the world but also between countries within them; (2) the impact of Chilean neuroethics/neurorights initiatives in the rest of Latin America; (3) tensions between technological and more basic approaches to mental health; and (4) opportunities for neuroethics engagement of undergraduate students.

In the end, this webinar made clear the need for a more meaningful participation of different cultural and regional actors in global discussions on the ethical and legal repercussions of neuroscience and neurotechnology. Moreover, it has been clarified that Latin America is culturally very heterogeneous, as there are many interesting differences within the region that may be striking to a North American or European eye. For instance, syncretism in Mexico highly influences the extent to which people trust science and technology. For their part, Chile and Argentina show important differences in how parents consider pharmacological treatment as an adequate means to treat mental conditions of their children. Finally, it has also been useful to clarify that there is a lot of movement in the region when it comes to neuroethics, as demonstrated, for example, by the first case worldwide recognizing the right to mental privacy (in Chile) and the national initiatives to incorporate neurorights (in Brazil and Chile).