Domhnall Iain MacDonald: The Biology of Pain

Pain is arguably one of the most central features of human experience. Many of us routinely experience pain in our lives, from the smallest cut to the most traumatic injury. Chronic pain, too, poses a serious challenge to our public health institutions. Philosophers have even argued that pain is morally bad: John Stuart Mill, for one, famously described happiness as “pleasure and the absence of pain”; the purpose of government, Mill thought, was to maximise the former and minimise the latter. Yet some individuals spend their entire lives feeling absolutely no pain at all and scientists are hoping to discover a breakthrough painkiller through analysing the genetic mutations that make people unable to feel pain.

This week on The Provocateur I talk to Domnhall Iain MacDonald, a PhD student in neuroscience at UCL, to discuss the biology of pain. Among other things, we cover the biological usefulness of pain to humans; whether non-human animals feel pain and the ethics of testing painful sensations on animals; and the latest frontiers in clinical pain research.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

Further Reading:

Hiyasaki, E. (2017) ‘End Pain Forever: How a Single Gene Could Become a Volume Knob for Human Suffering‘, Wired, 18 April.

Kiesel, L. (2016) ‘All Pain is Not Equal‘, Relief, 28 June.

Sutherland, S. (2016) ‘Pain Research in Animals: Why Do It, and What Can It Tell Us?‘ Relief, 10 January.

____ (2017) ‘Taking Aim at New Pain Drugs‘, Relief, 19 January.

Aarti Jagannath: The Mysteries of the Body Clock

It is difficult to overstate the impact that technology has had on us, transforming our ways of life and making us more connected than ever before. Where once you had to take days or months to reach the other side of the world, now you can fly from London to Hong Kong in a matter of hours. Where not so long ago in human history we could only rely on candlelight, now artificial lighting is so ubiquitous that we take them for granted. The demand for ever faster connectedness is having unprecedented effects on our circadian rhythms: jet lag is perhaps the best known example of one way in which the body clock gets disrupted, but the problems associated with electricity are arguably even greater, precisely because our 24/7 society is completely dependent on it in order to function. Body clock disruption has been implicated in a whole range of diseases, from depression to cancer, so it is now more urgent than ever before that scientists try to understand the mechanisms of the body clock, so we are in a better position to fix it when it does go wrong.

In this episode of The Provocateur I talk to Aarti Jagannath, a research fellow at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford, to help us unravel the mysteries of the body clock. We discuss the fundamentals of the body clock and what happens when it gets disrupted in a whole range of scenarios, from shift work to divers undergoing decompression to students pulling the occasional all-nighter. We also talk about the ways in which neuroscientists are trying to figure out how to reset our natural circadian cycle and even how some biologists are coming up with innovative treatments that exploit the body clock to better target cancer cells.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

Brian Earp: The Ethics of High-Tech Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy

While prejudice on the basis of sexual orientation is still widespread throughout the world, in recent decades laws have been enacted in various countries banning so-called conversion therapy: (typically) psychological attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to exclusively heterosexual. Advances in neuroscience in the not-too-distant future could mean that conversion therapy could be delivered in a ‘high-tech’ manner, for example by administering a drug that could rewire the neurochemical signals in our brains.

This possibility brings with it a raft of ethical issues and today on The Provocateur I talk to Brian Earp, Research Fellow at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University, to broach these issues. We discuss the possible harms of conversion therapy and whether neuroenhancement-based conversion therapy in particular produces any distinctive harms, explore arguments in favour of the practice and touch on some policy implications.

You can listen to part one of the podcast here: 

Part two is here: 

Note: In the broadcast I mention a second episode with Brian (discussing female and male circumcision), but unfortunately this has been postponed to next month due to scheduling issues. Watch this space!

Further Reading:

Cruz, D. B. (1999) ‘Controlling Desires: Sexual Orientation Conversion and the Limits of Knowledge and Law‘, Southern California Law Review 72, pp. 1297-1400.

Earp, B. D., A. Sandberg and J. Savulescu (2014) ‘Brave New Love: The Threat of High-Tech “Conversion” Therapy and the Bio-Oppression of Sexual Minorities‘, AJOB Neuroscience 5(1), pp. 4-12.

Gupta, K. (2012) ‘Protecting Sexual Diversity: Rethinking the Use of Neurotechnological Interventions to Alter Sexuality’, AJOB Neuroscience 3(3), pp. 24-28.

Haldeman, D. C. (2002) ‘Gay Rights, Patient Rights: The Implications of Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy‘, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 33(3), pp. 260-264.

Levy, J. T. (2005) ‘Sexual orientation, exit and refuge’, in Eisenberg, A. and J. Spinner-Halev (eds.) Minorities within Minorities: Equality, Rights and Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Okin, S. M. (1999) ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ in Cohen, J. et al. (eds.) Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sandel, M. (2007) The Case Against Perfection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shidlo, A. et al. (eds.) (2001) Sexual Conversion Therapy: Ethical, Clinical and Research Perspectives. New York, London and Oxford: The Haworth Medical Press.

Tozer, E. E. and J. A. Hayes (2004) ‘Why Do Individuals Seek Conversion Therapy? The Role of Religiosity, Internalized Homonegativity, and Identity Development‘, The Counseling Psychologist 32, pp. 716-740.

Daniel Kharlas: The Power of Meditation

Many of you will probably have come across meditation and mindfulness programmes at some point in your careers, especially those of you who are (former) students. But one of the problems with modern meditative practices in the West, argues Daniel Kharlas, is the fact that they are mostly depersonalized and so lack the ability to give patients the individual empowerment they need to change their lives for the better.

In this episode, I talk to Daniel, a masters student in Psychology at the University of Western Ontario in Canada to discuss the power of meditation. We discuss the effects of meditation on social and psychological wellbeing and the ways in which the digital revolution is transforming meditation through the rise of personalized apps. Daniel also offers some personal tips on being a better meditator and even coaches me through a short mindfulness routine you can try at home.

You can listen to part one of the podcast here:

Part two is here:

Further Reading:

Goyal, M. et al. (2014) ‘Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis’, JAMA Internal Medicine 174(3), pp. 367-368.

Kharlas, D. A. and P. Frewen (2016) ‘Trait mindfulness correlates with individual differences in multisensory imagery vividness’, Personality and Individual Differences 93, pp. 44-50.

Tang, Y-Y., B. K. Hölzel and M. J. Posner (2015) ‘The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, pp. 213-225.