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Designer brains: my thoughts

March 17, 2010

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.

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7 Comments
  1. Chris Tipper permalink

    I think you need to examine the political implications of all this. This technology is a gift to any potential tyrant or totalitarian. If I thought there was any chance of it coming through, I’d be very concerned.

  2. Hi Chris. I appreciate your comment. Certainly it’s well to contemplate the full range of implications for any given technology or scientific development.

    Your comment rings a little hollow, however–you’ll need to justify how elimination of psychopathy or enhancement of cognitive ability is a “gift” to a political tyrant. It sounds similar to someone declaring that genetic therapies are a “gift” to totalitarianism: with the luxury of historical perspective, we would laugh at someone who claimed that unlocking the human genome is a “slippery slope” toward creating zombie-like clones.

    As an aside, I’m curious to know which aspects of neural technologies you don’t think are going to come through.

  3. Chris Tipper permalink

    Well the history of technology suggests that there are pitfalls with any new development. I just think you are being naive in believing that these tools could not be perverted to control a population and reinforce a specific set of psychological capacities. Think of the use a dictator could make of a technology that is capable of reinforcing psychopathic traits and thus create an army of murderous thugs.

    Also I don’t think any of the tools you are describing are likely to materialise. I am thinking of a state of affairs where medical science cannot properly explain the action of common psychiatric drugs and fMRI machines cannot even identify individual neurochemicals. We are decades away from this sort of expertise, and I simply don’t think we are smart enough. But that is just an opinion, I will readily admit.

  4. Hmm…sounds Manchurian Candidate-esque. The concept of an army of psychopaths is oxymoronic, though: the propensities of the psychopath for controlling others and satisfying their own needs are antithetical to the vision of soldiers who submissively obey an authority outside of themselves–you’ll need a different psych mechanism to be persuasive.

    Re: fMRI’s alleged incapability of identifying individual neurochemicals, this is a patently false statement. For one, MRI is very capable of producing spectroscopy data from which molecular signatures can be discerned. More immediately, though, a new fleet of molecular imaging markers are fast on their way, the first of which was a dopamine marker:

    http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/brain-imaging-0301.html

    Given the exponential progress of scientific knowledge, it’s only a matter of time before the brain’s mechanistic questions are fleshed out. And then what? Why not plan ahead for the most morally desirable applications of this knowledge?

  5. Noel Ahedo permalink

    Michael, I couldn’t agree more. I have never quite understood why humans are so fearful of science. There have been more wars and lives lost at the hands of human emotions, beliefs and culture. To understand why and how we think what we think is to better understand ourselves. Most problems in society are happening because of our brains. If we could work to understand these issues then maybe we could solve our social and economic problems (ex. crime, depression, unemployment, suicide) Sometimes a little more knowledge is what it takes to build a better society. There must have been a reason we were given the ability to question, critically think and solve.

  6. Chris Tipper permalink

    Your points are well taken. I would however like to point out that I am not afraid of science, having studied Electrical Engineering at University. I have, however, lost all faith in science to answer any truly interesting questions. Such as why do people fall in love; or why do people believe in God; or why was Tony Blair elected Prime Minister three times in a row. Too often when science claims to have an answer to these questions it turns out to be a sort of banal just-so story that has no more validity than any other theory from another discipline, such as economics or even literature. I would question if answers to these questions lie outside the purview of science completely, if by science one means a reductive and analytical construct designed to provide instruments to discover the physical universe.

  7. Chris Tipper permalink

    By the way as you will gather I know perfectly well the principles of fMRI machines. I did not in fact say what you thought I said. Merely that no production machines are capable of this sort of resolution in real time. Until they are available we might as well be trying to work out how to build a computer from X-ray photographs of a PC.

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