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At the moment I am involved in a neurobiology research trying to assess the feasibility of using emotional response to elicit distinct EEG (brain wave) patterns from the brain using static images. Distinct brain waves can be used as control signals to perform distinct actions traditionally done using a remote controller (i.e. flipping through the channels).

Conventionally, people have tried using different images such as a flower or a tiger, a spaceship or a musician in attempt to trigger different responses. The team believes that these input stimulus are too "lite" to produce consistent and reliable results. We wish to investigate whether pornographic images, or images depicting violence, death will produce even stronger responses. Nothing too wild, but definitely involves things that people do not talk about while doing these kind of research.

Since there are a dearth of publications on this technique for eliciting EEG, the best way for us to meet the deadline is to go ahead with these "non-traditional" trials. On the one hand I think my project supervisor will be shocked that we have even thought about using these method, or he will reject it out right claiming an ethical issue, but we are hopeful that a small breakthrough may be reached if the team followed through with this experiment.

What should the team do in this case? Should we go through with our experiment and jeopardize our reputation or should we just give up on this train of thought and risk failure by continuing with the methods that are likely not to yield any useful results?

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    Publishable or not aside, does the consent form indicate there will be explicit images and potential negative feeling? If not and someone got sick afterward, there can be consequences. – Penguin_Knight Nov 15 '14 at 6:09
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    There's plenty of research using graphic material, so are you sure your premise is correct? Not everyone is (sorry) a prude. – Raphael Nov 15 '14 at 8:49
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    Closely related question: If someone conducts unethical research unbeknownst to anybody, but produces positive results, what would happen to the research once discovered?. If all participants are willing, the material is legal in your country, and your university's ethics board and the journal's editor are happy, then there shouldn't be a problem. Most problems arise when possibly dubious methods have been covered up, and/or the relevant parties haven't approved the research. – Moriarty Nov 15 '14 at 15:32
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    the best way for us to meet the deadline is to go ahead with these "non-traditional" trialsTherefore, you will not meet the deadline. – JeffE Nov 15 '14 at 18:39
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    I cannot answer your question, but I would be more than happy to be part of this test because I think that science should not be influenced by "common sense of decency". As long as the people you test agreed to watch "strong and mature content", I don't think it's unethical to show them a pornographic image or a violent crime scene. – domokun Nov 17 '14 at 9:45
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All research involving EEG on human subjects will require IRB, or equivalent ethical review board, approval in order to be published in a reputable journal. Studies involving pornography, violence, and death are not that uncommon and your IRB will have procedures in place to deal with these types of studies. They will likely require you to provide clear information about what the subjects will see during the experiment if it does not impact your hypothesis. They may require you to prescreen subjects for past experiences that may make the images more salient, again if it doesn't interfere with the hypothesis. Finally, if the images are disturbing, they will likely require you to have a support mechanism included in your debrief. Often, if the subjects are limited to students, understanding how to get emergency access to a psychologist is enough. In extreme cases they may require a psychologist to be on site.

NEVER do research without ethical approval. There is nothing in your proposal that sounds so shocking that it should cause a supervisor to think less of you. He/she may not want to go down that road on scientific or personal moral grounds, but you should still feel comfortable raising the idea with your supervisor.

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First, do I understand correctly that a large part of your question is whether you should avoid discussing this significant and controversial change in research methodology with your project supervisor because you think that he would reject it outright for ethical reasons? If so, what am I missing that makes this even conceivably a good idea? Most supervisors will have a huge problem with that behavior whether it yields breakthrough results or not.

Even assuming that you have the primary authorization to run the project, your idea of, under deadline pressure, just taking a quick shot at showing project participants images of pornography, violence and death with the goal of getting suitably vigorous brainwave activity again sounds almost too-bad-to-be-true. It is in the nature of disturbing images that people who are shown them may be...disturbed. That's not a side-effect: that is an essential part of the effect you're trying to produce. People can react in unpredictable ways to being shown such imagery: if it triggers, say, depressive or violent behavior in a subject, then....yikes, you could be in so much trouble. Compound that with not running it past your supervisor: yikes squared.

Once more: talk to your supervisor. It is really distressing to me that you see a possible ethical objection and are asking other people on the internet whether or not it can be brushed aside if the results are nice. This is doubly wrong-headed: on the one hand, you don't actually know if your methodology would be ethically objectionable: scientific research involving pornographic or violent images is not inherently ethically objectionable; it's just potentially sensitive and needs to be handled with extreme care and professionalism. But in case what you're suggesting turns out to be truly ethically objectionable according to the standards of your discipline: of course you're going to have severe difficulties publishing such work, and publishing it could do you more harm than good. Exchanging ethical integrity for better research results is a terrible proposition....right? Is that really news to you?

Finally:

Should we go through with our experiment and jeopardize our reputation or should we just give up on this train of thought and risk failure by continuing with the methods that are likely not to yield any useful results?

Meaningful research inherently carries the risk of failure: that is not a peculiarity of your situation. But you present a dichotomy of research failure versus showing pornographic and/or violent images. I'll take door number three: maybe it's just my own prejudice -- none of my academic successes have inherently involved violence, pornography or death -- but I will suggest that another solution may be lurking out there somewhere.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful and comprehensive response. I guess a lot of it stems from lack of result and the desperation stemming from it. Everyone in the team seems to be so adamant of doing this and yes if it is done, one of us is going to be volunteer to be the subject. Your arguments are sound and your remarks have left a great impression on me. I will urge the team to rethink this proposition before going on this potentially destructive endeavor. – Carlos - the Mongoose - Danger Nov 15 '14 at 6:38
  • @StrongBad: I certainly appreciate what you're saying. But in this case, isn't showing disturbing images to the very people who selected them the least problematic way to run the experiment? Medical students learn to inject and suture themselves and each other before they are allowed near a patient. It seems to me that there are some things that you have to be willing to try on yourself before you ask someone else to try. By "others", I mean whoever else had this bright idea. This is not to say that I am endorsing the practice; I'm just pointing to what I think is a much lesser evil. – Pete L. Clark Nov 15 '14 at 7:24
  • As I said, I am really thinking of trying out an idea on yourself, not on others. If I want to collect and show myself disturbing images, it is my right to do so. It would of course be ridiculous to do that in lieu of a formal experiment and try to publish it, but if I'm trying to decide whether it's at all plausible that this would generate brainwave activity, I would much rather freak myself out than someone else. Self-experimentation is part of scientific tradition: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-experimentation, though of course sometimes it goes too far. – Pete L. Clark Nov 15 '14 at 7:40
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    Nevertheless I removed the paragraph: the idea that some group members could (subtly, perhaps) pressure others to participate in a half-baked procedure with unknown psychological consequences is indeed a concern. Thanks for your input. – Pete L. Clark Nov 15 '14 at 7:54
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I'm going to approach this from a different angle as I think your premise is flawed.

Graphic images will only produce a more "energetic" response if the subject's threshold is below the image's level, so you will have to do a lot of pre-screening. This will, by definition, prepare the subject for what they are about to see and lessen the impact, thus negating exactly what you are trying to accomplish.

Consider these (extreme, but that's what you want) examples:

Image: teen girl getting railed by 4 very well endowed men.

Subject A: Average soccer mom. Reaction: vomits on EEG machine.

Subject B: Retired porn producer. Reaction: None. Been there, filmed that.

Image: Messy truck vs. motorbike accident scene.

Subject A: Average soccer mom. Reaction: vomits on EEG machine.

Subject B: Ambulance attendant / policeman. Reaction: None. Saw worse than that yesterday.

Image: Flowers.

Subject A: Average soccer mom. Reaction: None.

Subject B: Trauma surgeon. Reaction: Can't breathe. Hyper-allergic to pollen, image triggers psychosomatic reaction as he almost died from the real thing last week.

Image: Clown from Poltergeist.

Subject A: Average soccer mom. Reaction: Smiles. She likes horror movies, and that's a classic.

Subject B: Battle-hardened soldier. Reaction: Panic attack - watched movie on a sleepover when he was 9 and now has coulrophobia. Can barely handle McDonalds.

In summary, a neutral image familiar to everyone will produce a consistent response. Going too far off the well-trodden path will become increasingly unpredictable but will not always result in stronger results.

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    There are lots signals (EEG and others) which grow with the magnitude of a stimuli. While hard thresholds with binary outcomes are not unheard of, they tend to be the exception and not the rule. Accounting for individual differences, either through factoring out causes or averaging them away, is typical of this type of research. – StrongBad Nov 15 '14 at 10:00

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