Designer brains: my thoughts
This past week, a publication in Nature Neuroscience has made quite a stir in both the scientific and the popular press. The basic finding reported in the paper is that there is a very high correlation between persons engaging in psychopathic behavior and a hyperactive dopamine reward system. In other words, both the reward and the anticipation for reward are so great in the brains of psychopathic individuals, that the considerations of harm are overridden by the unusually intensified reward circuitry.
This is just one of a handful of significant discoveries that are being made into the neural basis for psych pathologies. Developments are coming along in understanding the neural underpinnings of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, addictions, in addition to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia. This real-time neuro revolution really is rewriting the way that we think about pathologic behavior and cognition, and—while it does not crowd out the entities of personal responsibility from the total formula of accountability and personhood—it certainly emphasizes the role of brain and physical systems contributing to the end result of character and identity.
It might seem like a non-obvious segue, but the increasingly well-understood involvement of physical brain in behavioral phenomena leads me to think about future capabilities for radical modulation of character and psyche through neuromodulatory means. In the example of sociopathic emergence from hyperactive reward systems, this is a parameter that is completely within the realm of physical modulation. It of course remains to be seen which specific neuromodulatory approach will become the best set of tools for altering neural wiring. Refinements in transcranial magnetic stimulation, sophisticated neurofeedback (and inherent plasticity of the human brain), and forthcoming nano/neuroengineering could all provide breakthrough modalities for high-precision brain modulation; not to mention the continuing refinements to more traditional approaches of chemical prescriptions and neurosurgery.
Indeed, it may be rightly considered that we are moving toward an era of designer brains. I personally think this is a completely wonderful human development. On numerous occasions, I have heard people respond to this trend with trepidation. It is as if they are so comfortable with the familiarity of the suboptimal present that they are incapable of embracing the greater promise of what could be.
Among the more unfounded of these concerns is the fear that in an era of designer brains, we will all become so neurally homogenous, that the depth and variety of our human experience will take a hit. (How noble of them to want “variety” and “richness” as a byproduct of the suffering of others.) This is something akin to saying that in the world of automobiles, it is squeaky breaks and faulty ignitions that give variety and richness to the types and styles of cars available. Or to be more anthropomorphic, it is like rejecting plastic surgery based on the unfounded fear that cosmetic operations will ultimately result in a world full of women who all look exactly like Heidi Klum.
Indeed, the fear of greatness may prove to be one of the biggest limiting factors on our progress toward our maximal human potential. At least with regard to homogeneity, there are more than enough degrees of freedom and variety in the realm of functional cognition that we don’t need to worry about designer neural modulation creating a race of neural droids.