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The Neuroethics of Labels

From an evolutionary perspective, it made sense that our ancestors feared the unknown and rejected the different. Let’s imagine human tribes 500,000 years ago. Avoiding “other” individuals in the tribe might have been necessary to keep the tribe safe. In other words, it was useful to generalize some as a potential threat. Being able to label our surroundings and generalize the collected information are abilities that took human beings from sticks and stones to the technological advances that we are currently experiencing.

In this blog post, I want to discuss when those, sometimes useful habits, can be the source of discrimination and ethically questionable behavior. And how, neuroscience must be particularly aware and held accountable for the language used in publications and the dissemination of its findings.

Neuroscience grasps with what makes us, us. Neuroscientists study a broad range of topics, including behavior, cognition, and cell interactions. It includes the underlying mechanisms of the organ that is responsible for our identity and awareness of our surroundings. And that is why its findings must be treated carefully and communicated ethically.

For starters, language matters. Linguistic forms influence mental representations. Indeed, language can reinforce stereotypes, provide context, and trigger emotions, both which can promote discrimination, prevent help-seeking behavior, and undermine agency and identity.

Nonetheless, it is not possible or even desirable, for human beings to be unbiased, as we said, can be useful in everyday life. Most certainly, connotations change across time and locations, and the associations made with each one of them, evolves as well. Particularly, the setting and the reach must be considered. In a public setting, where one’s words can reach people that are not knowledgeable of the topic, it’s better to be cautious.

Terms like “schizophrenics” limit the identity of the people to their diagnosis, which can limit the ability to cope with it in society. Furthermore, it creates a distinction between “us”, and “them”. And as mentioned previously, it is expected to fear or reject what is different, the unknown. Moreover, if one cannot see oneself in others, empathy is limited, and the assumption that one is immune to mental health conditions, is easy to make.

One concrete way to embrace physical and mental diversity and prevent discrimination can be to separate the disease/disorder from the individual's personhood. This practice emphasizes the personhood rather than the conditions. For example, saying, “children with autism”, and “person with schizophrenia” rather than “autistic children” or “schizophrenics”.

An example of how language can prevent help-seeking behavior is when a person avoids psychotherapy to avoid being labeled as “crazy” or weak, which can be quite common in societies that still stigmatizes mental health.

One person with a background in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, or other similar areas, can understand what the authors mean by “normality” or “healthy” but that doesn’t mean that the rest of society must know how to interpret those words, and those findings. This points out the need of professionals to contextualize and explain to the public the implications of what is being studied, before reinforcing stigmas that can hurt people.

Same applies to the research regarding differences underlying brain mechanisms according to sex, or ethnicity, autism spectrum, intellectual abilities, schizophrenia, depression, and sexual attraction. Every neuroscientific finding must be carefully and ethically published and discussed.

I want to encourage you to examine attitudes, to be aware of these biases and be careful with the language we use daily and in scientific writing. Overall, the aim is to come closer to society and not aleniate ourselves from it. That includes being vigilent of the way we communicate about the subjects of our research, regardless of gender, ethnicity, and religion but also other human characteristics, including how our brain works. The words we use can be the first step to end stigma and start respectful dialogue about mental health.

Julianne Beirute-Herrera is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Molecular Biology in the Department of Genomics, Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine. She is researching human-specific genes involved in neurogenesis, ageing, schizophrenia, ASD, and neurodegeneration, using the following technologies: CRISPR-Cas9, human induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, and single cell transcriptomics.

As a neuroscientist, she wants her field to improve the life quality of the human population, while being in harmony with each other, the environment and other species. She believes this cannot be accomplished without the dissemination and discussion of scientific findings with the general public, which is why she is am very keen on getting involved with Neuroethics Today.

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