Facebook and the Fusiform Gyrus: A Neurologic Perspective on Social Online Networking for the Cultivation of Global Bioethics



Editor's Note: Parallel Paper Presentation from CBHD's 2009 Annual Conference, Global Bioethics: Emerging Challenges Facing Human Dignity


Abstract: Online social networking has become a major international cultural phenomenon. Facebook, for example, hosts more than 200 million active users, 70% of whom reside outside the United States. Facebook also hosts a number of bioethics discussion groups, which have the potential to enlarge the global bioethics community, crossing national boundaries and bridging cultures. Online networking offers a number of practical advantages over traveling to conferences and professional society meetings. These include savings in time and expense, immediacy of communication, demographic inclusiveness, greater participation among younger people whose careers are being shaped, and a democratic forum for expression of a broad range of ideas from many perspectives. Some disadvantages include potentially unmanageable volumes of information, vulnerability of participants to uncharitable criticism, lack of participation by older people who could share insights drawn from life experience, dissemination of unverifiable assertions, and overt or subtle commercial influence over content. Interpersonal interaction and dialogue in community are essential to bioethics. Bioethical discourse in the online realm of virtual reality, due to the nature of the medium, has the potential to become more personal, and hence in some ways more effective, than journals. The ability to share facial images, audio and video content, and social as well as cognitive feedback engages social brain systems important for ethical reflection. Such functions include cognitive empathy in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, emotional empathy in the orbitofrontal cortex-ventrolateral region, and interpretation of facial expression in the fusiform gyrus and its connections. An understanding of the neurology of social behavior underlying shared ethical dialogue may contribute to the further development of online media useful in the cultivation of a robust global bioethics community that is appropriately sensitive to regional and universal moral concerns. Online discourse cannot, however, adequately take the place of meeting face-to-face and being present to others.


Editor’s Note: The views expressed herein are Dr. Cheshire’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Mayo Clinic or Mayo Foundation, USA. This parallel paper presentation was adapted from a Grey Matters essay, “Facebook and the Fusiform Gyrus,” published in Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics 25, no. 3 (2009): 139–144 and is used with permission.


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