We live in an age unlike any other, in that someday soon we may need to develop a definition of what constitutes a human being.
The idea of breeding superior human beings has been around for a long time, with notorious results. In Frankenstein Mary Shelley imagined assembling a complete human from its component parts. We’ve also altered our bodies in a bewildering variety of ways for “cosmetic purposes” but also more practical reasons, like the first wooden legs and hand replacements.
These days we not only have increasingly complex prosthetics for those who need them, but research is taking us deeper and deeper into the realm of brain alteration, and if there’s any part of us that truly defines us as human, it’s our brains.
Deliberately altering brain conditions using electricity has been used since at least the 1930’s, but today’s technology allows it to be used with far greater precision than ever before. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) involves extremely fine wires (electrodes) surgically implanted into specific areas of the brain where they will provide electrical impulses into the network of neurons (nerve and brain cells) that constitute our cerebral “wiring”. These impulses are controlled by a device much like a pacemaker that’s usually placed beneath the patient’s collar bone. So far DBS has been used to treat the symptoms of patients suffering problems with motor control, like Parkinson’s Disease, dystonia, or epilepsy, but is also being tried out to alleviate chronic pain, Tourette Syndrome and, more controversially, schizophrenia and depression. Many of these conditions have long been treated with drugs, and DBS provides similar benefits (though no cures) but much more precisely. Neuroethicist James Giordano of Georgetown University says in an interview, “A drug like Prozac or antidepressant drugs, is basically like throwing water on your face to get a drink of water. Using something like deep brain stimulation is like putting a drop of water on your tongue.” But Giordano does have concerns about the procedure. Maybe we should too, partly for what it now does, but much more for what it could be used to do in the future.
DBS is much more precise than drugs, yes, but when a thought might be produced by the firing of one or two brain cells, leading to a cascade effect of further thoughts, emotions, and moods, the discharge of these electrodes is still pretty crude. An impulse introduced into the neural network can cause effects “upstream and downstream”. New electrical fields affect the cells all around the site. Though patients are often awake during the surgery to help direct the accuracy of the implantation, and the devices are further fine-tuned over the following days, side effects can include memory lapses, pain, sexual impulses, mood swings and wholesale personality changes. Sometimes changes in a person’s tastes and interests. Sometimes worse. Neurology is still not an exact science. And these side effects might be the price of alleviating grievous conditions like Parkinson’s, but they also raise a more troubling question.
What about using DBS to deliberately change mood, tastes, and personality traits?
I’ll never forget the first time I came across the concept of a “wirehead” in the Known Space science fiction stories of Larry Niven—a wirehead being someone who’s addicted to having the pleasure centres of their brain directly stimulated by current from a device called a droud. The main character in Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man suffers from the same temptation. It’s easy to see how that kind of deep brain stimulation could be extremely dangerous. But using a DBS device to alter mood could surely be just as risky, and it’s already being done. What if we could adjust the controls of a gadget at whim to make us less shy and more outgoing, less fearful, more cheerful, impulsive, creative, or horny? It’s not a stretch. It’s happening accidentally with DBS research, so it’s only a matter of time—trial and error—before it becomes more intentional. What then? If that kind of behaviour becomes widespread and socially acceptable, will we ever truly be “ourselves” anymore, or just the product of our programming? (And hopefully of our own volition, not someone else’s—that’s a whole other area of frightening possibilities.) It may seem like a good thing when wallflower Sue is brought out of her shell and becomes the life of the party. Except if everybody does the same thing, what happens to the diversity and variety we now enjoy among our circle of friends? Personalities could become like clothes, changing with the winds of fashion in vain attempts to copy vacuous celebrities. Wake up in the morning and adjust the settings of your brain like the temperature, lighting, and security system of your smart home.
Even now, when DBS is being used therapeutically to help people with mood disorders become more “normal”, who defines what is normal, and how? Surely a normal set of moods and behaviours is a little different for everyone—that’s what individualism is. It’s what makes us interesting.
If intentional mood and behaviour modification becomes commonplace, will someone be able to blame their DBS device for unacceptable behaviour, or even a crime?
As with so many other areas of human knowledge, as our abilities increase we, as a society, need to get ahead of issues like these and work out their ethical and legal implications before they become a problem. So far, we haven’t been doing a great job of that. And if we’re going to remake ourselves—redefining what it means to be human—we’d better start thinking about what we truly want human beings to be.