Neuroethics Interviews: Making Way for Truth and Technology

August 22, 2017
Karola Kreitmair
Karola Kreitmair

The following interview was first published in the International Neuroethics Society newsletter.

To recognize young talent in the field of neuroethics, the INS is hosting a “rising star” plenary lecture at the 2017 Annual Meeting. The goal is to showcase an individual who has made a significant contribution to the field of neuroethics beyond expectations at his or her career level.

This year’s designee is Karola Kreitmair. As a philosopher, researcher, and playwright, Kreitmair holds great promise for scholarship and leadership in neuroethics and for the INS. Her lecture will discuss the opportunities and challenges associated with mobile and wearable health technology in clinical practice, research, and everyday life. In the following interview, Kreitmair talks about her research background, career goals, and shares some words of encouragement for future rising stars.

Where did your interest in neuroethics originally come from?

My graduate work was in philosophy of mind so I spent a lot of time looking at questions concerning the relationship between what we call the mind and the brain. But what’s always been important to me is to take an empirically grounded approach to these questions. So alongside philosophy, I studied neuroscience, linguistics, evolution, and this gave me a strong grounding in questions of cognitive science. Then, I began collaborating with David Magnus (Stanford University) on bioethics and I was attracted to questions about how bioethics and the mind intersect, and that’s where I’ve been focusing most of my attention recently.

In what ways has your background in philosophy shaped your current field of research?

Humans have long been employing technologies to affect the way our minds and our brains work; for instance, tool use, language, artistic representation. I’m interested in how longstanding values of being human are being affected by new technologies.

Specifically, how mobile and wearable health technologies, such as Fitbits, ingestible sensors, and sweat sensors, which are widely available and easily accessible, affect the way humans approach healthcare, security issues, and authentic living. As we become more and more technologically advanced, the opportunity to affect our minds in radical ways becomes more real. I think it’s really interesting, and important from an ethical perspective, to not only shine a light on these issues, but to have ethics be a voice in the development and implementation of these new technologies.

How do you see your research impacting the daily lives and future experiences of individuals?

I attended a wearable technology conference in Munich a while ago and I was the only ethicist present. Everyone else was a technology developer and I was the only one who raised concerns about overuse or compulsive behavior with respect to wearable technology. At first, that was met with a lot of consternation, but afterwards I had a number of app and technology developers come up to me asking to continue the discussion. I’ve since sent them various things that I’ve written on this topic. The more of a voice we get out as neuroethicists, the more the industry will listen. We are in a place where we are unlocking more and more data about people’s brains and behaviors, and developing more ways of affecting our brains, and it’s important we have an ethical actor at the table to shape that future. I’ve also received a grant from the Medicine & the Muse program at Stanford to write and produce a play to tackle some of the existential questions about the mind and brain through a more dramatic approach. The title of my play is Homo Ex Machina. Basically, I try to take a multidisciplinary, multi-pronged approach to neuroethics.

Do you see yourself continuing with these kinds of interests for years to come?

Oh definitely, I want to continue in this direction. One of the interesting things about neuroethics is how it’s such a developing field. I don’t want to commit myself to saying what I’ll be studying ten years down the road, because new questions emerge as time passes, but I think the issue of how new technologies intersect with clinical, scientific, and human values will continue to be important and I certainly hope that I will continue to research this and be a voice in shaping the development of technology.

Have you attended the INS Annual Meeting before?

I’ve attended three previous annual meetings. And for me, attending the meeting is an opportunity to speak with, debate with, and potentially go on to collaborate with the leading figures and brightest thinkers in the field of neuroethics from all over the world. It’s an excellent chance to learn about new work, but more importantly to have that human contact with others who are interested in similar topics. Coming from the discipline of philosophy, I don’t think anything replaces face-to-face interactions and discussion. It makes your work better and it allows for better work to be done collectively.

There’ll be many young researchers at the meeting. Some have yet to figure out what they want to pursue long term. As a young researcher yourself, what are some words of encouragement you may have for your fellow colleagues?

My personal strategy when I’m reading a paper, or confronted with a new argument is to focus on the point that frustrates me the most, the point that I find most vexing or potentially fraught with problem—that’s the question I really want to sink my teeth into. I like to test my intuitions: why do I find this frustrating? How do I build on that? My advice is follow your gut instinct because that will lead you to the area that will keep you interested and most fascinated for the longest time.