A Day in the Life of a Neuroethicist: Andrea Lavazza
Updated: May 24, 2021
Andrea Lavazza is a senior research fellow at Centro Universitario Internazionale, in Arezzo, Italy, and an adjunct professor at University of Pavia, Italy.
1. What’s the first thing you do when you get to work in the morning?
After turning on my computer, I like to start by looking at updates from the people and institutions I follow. Furthermore, traditional mass media provide a great deal of information on new scientific advances. Where I find inspiration and ideas that seem to be interesting, I go to deepen it by delving into the scientific literature. I once heard John Harris, the famous philosopher and bioethicist, say that he too works a bit in this way to find starting hints. This obviously does not mean that I do not do a more systematic job as well, perhaps writing a section of an article and continuing to peek at Twitter and emails. Multitasking doesn't bother me.
2. What’s your work routine like?
I don't have an everyday routine. This has helped me on the one hand to always have new stimuli, on the other hand it can sometimes complicate the job. When writing a challenging book or article, you should focus on it for a long time. In general, I write on the computer hearing radio programs or music. Sometimes, however, I turn everything off and look for silence. I don't drink or eat, if I start eating a candy, I end up eating the whole package. And it’s better to avoid this risk.
3. Are you involved in the theoretical, investigative, or the practical/translational aspect of neuroethics? Describe your research area briefly.
My research is quite varied. It ranges from theoretical to practical aspects. In this period, two areas interest me above all. Brain organoids, and brain privacy. Organoids are three-dimensional biological structures grown in vitro from different kinds of stem cells that self-organize mimicking real organs with organ-specific cell types. In particular, there are new, relevant and so far overlooked ethical questions concerning cerebral organoids. Scientists have created "mini-brains" corresponding to the development level of a few months fetus, albeit with smaller dimensions and many structural and functional differences. However, cerebral organoids exhibit neural connections and electrical activity, raising the question whether they are or (which is more likely) they will one day be somewhat sentient and conscious. On the other hand, brain privacy concerns the fact that many new tools, including prostheses for clinical use, can literally read some of our thoughts. They are both situations in which ethical reflection has something important to say. And I try to make my contribution in an innovative way.
4. What’s a challenge that you face on a daily basis as a neuroethicist?
I think the most difficult challenge is to stay down-to-earth. It is easy to make fancy hypotheses, to imagine futuristic and dangerous scenarios: they are all situations that lend themselves to interesting discussions and that can also attract the attention of scientific journals and popular media. But these exercises are not always helpful. Indeed, in some cases they can be misleading. It is true, however, that a neuroethicist should imagine what could happen, anticipate the risks and opportunities of brain research. In this sense, a difficult balance is needed between the temptation of pure science fiction and an intelligent look to the future that is scientifically informed and philosophically solid.
5. How do you determine what questions deserve the most focus and attention in your work?
As I said at the beginning, I like to have a broad look at reality, to understand what is imposed on the scene as an ethical theme. In recent months, Covid-19 has had a major impact on our lives. By itself, the virus and its spreading have no relation to neuroethics. However, it seemed important to me to try to make a scientific contribution related to my competence. With a colleague of mine, I wrote some articles on the role of experts and the way they contribute to society and politics. Virologists and epidemiologists have made recommendations that have greatly influenced health policies but also other political decisions. It is therefore necessary to reflect on what kind of epistemic authority these experts rely on and whether it this authority is sufficient in order to be able to decide on life and death issues as it happened during the pandemic.
6. What do you wish more people understood about being a neuroethicist? Whether it be from a schooling, interest, or day-in-the-life point of view? Describe neuroethics in your own words.
I think it is difficult to explain neuroethics as an autonomous discipline to those who do not deal with cognitive neuroscience. But if concrete examples of cases are offered, everything becomes clearer and it is evident that we need neuroethics. If we say that neuroethics addresses the ethical, legal, societal and philosophical implications of neuroscientific research, we give a correct definition but that does not arouse particular interest. On the other hand, if we say that in the lab they are studying molecules that can erase certain types of memories and that the victims of crimes could take these drugs and forget the violence suffered, interest and questions immediately arise. A neuroethicist is a scholar who can try to answer at least some of these questions, because s/he knows how these molecules really work (they are not miraculous) and because s/he has reflected on the value of memory and its importance for society in the case of crimes. Of course, nobody has the perfect solution to impose. But we should prepare for scenarios that are no longer so far away.
7. What skills or training do you most frequently use in your work and how do you suggest more people gain these skills if they want to contribute to the field?
I think neuroethics is about neuroscience and philosophy, and moral philosophy specifically. You cannot face the ethical challenges of fields such as cognitive enhancement or brain organoid research if you do not understand the scientific bases of these techniques, how they work, and their limits. At the same time, you need to understand and evaluate the ethical and regulatory aspects that may be related to a technique that is being proposed, or a new application of it. It is necessary to have some philosophical imagination nourished by the knowledge of the main ethical and metaethical theories, the most important authors and the most recent bioethical and neuroethical theories. I think it is difficult to build all this from scratch. In your university education there will be more space either for cognitive sciences or for philosophy. Then you can rebalance by deepening the field that you studied least at the beginning.
8. What do you love most about your work? What keeps you motivated?
I love the variety of themes that are part of neuroethics. There are often new advances in neuroscience that allow us to deal with overlooked ethical issues. We need to find new ways to address changing scenarios. We need to take into consideration the positions of other scholars and the common intuitions of the audience to whom we want to talk. We often are confronted with very delicate issues, and we make recommendations that come into people's lives. All of this is very exciting and keeps you motivated to work scrupulously and carefully. It is by no means a static or boring field. Then I like to write an article and see it published, quoted and commented on. It means that you have worked well and that you have made a minimal contribution to the field in which you work. This is the best satisfaction, I guess.
9. What’s one thing you wished you did differently in your career trajectory?
I think smart people would often like to change many of the things they have done in the past. Knowledge and experience make us better. Of course, I wish I had started to deal with brain sciences and neuroethics in particular much earlier. But we must not regret the missed opportunities too much. I look forward with confidence.
10. What’s one thing you could advice the next generation of neuroethicists?
It scares me to address the next generation of neuroethicists. It reminds me that I'm getting old. And also quickly. The advice I could give is to try to be well careful not to lock oneself in a disciplinary enclosure, and to cultivate different skills and knowledge. The best ideas come from this open-mindedness, from the unconscious and automatic work that our mind makes once we have fed it with many different stimuli. We must strive to find connections between things. But without exaggerating ...
11. What’s the last thing you do when you leave work in the evening?
I literally don't interrupt work in the evening. As a neuroethicist and philosopher, I keep thinking and working, there are no rigid schedules or time limits. If I stop writing scientific stuff, which is the most demanding and tiring task, sometimes I watch a basketball game on television and in the meantime I read a book that can give me some new ideas. Or I discuss with my wife Silvia, who is a clinical psychologist, some relevant cases that she has treated. Or I exchange Whatsapp messages with some colleagues on shared projects while writing a piece for a newspaper. Obviously, at some point, the light goes out and I sleep.
This post is part of the Neuroethics Today blog series 'A Day in the Life of a Neuroethicist' where we bring you answers to questions by junior and senior neuroethicists about a day in their life to give you a better idea of what neuroethicists do, what have they learned throughout their trajectory, and ways that you can do it too.