What if Brains have Minds of their Own?
The study of the brain is, from the point of view of an old-time psychologist, the latest in a line of psychological crazes. Many of the crazes have produced fruit, but none have solved our deepest problems. Unquestionably, neuroscientists have made many interesting, important, and useful discoveries, and there are many more to come. Our children and our children's children will, almost certainly, benefit from these discoveries. At the same time we must remember it is a new field and that, as with all new fields, the imagination dresses it up as a cure all. I would never disparage where neuroscience has been, where it is, and where it is going, but I do want to offer five cautionary notes to those following the developments in the field.
1. The goal of much of the research in neurobiology seems to be able to control the negative aspects of the mind by controlling the brain. The assumptions are that the mind is the brain (or, at least, that they are intimately connected) and that, for the first time, we have techniques and tools for getting to the bottom of brain functions as the first step towards influencing them.
Our first cautionary note is that, though the idea is cast in a new form, for millennia people have devised ways of influencing the brain even if they didn't think of it in these terms. To give a simple example, it has always been known that if someone gets hit hard enough on the head they will become unconscious. Though this awareness may not have been thought of as influencing the mind by doing something to the brain, this is what it amounts to. And hitting someone on the head, hard, is one of the oldest forms of sedation.
There are many other ways people have intervened to affect the minds of others. Words are a subtle and effective method of getting people to believe certain things and think in certain ways. Words can be used to prove points and convince with logic, and they can also be used to inspire fear and other emotions. "If you do x then y will happen" are more than words in their effects.
Words can also persuade people to like or dislike things (or other people), and this can be especially effective when combined with images. This is the basis of advertising and also propaganda.
We also need to remember that, throughout history, people have scoured the world around them to find minerals and plants that would, when ingested or applied in some way, have beneficial psychological affects. Lithium, for example, has been used for centuries to manage mood swings.
And we must not forget meditation techniques along with verbal philosophical and religious ideas that seem to bring peace to many practitioners, at least at times.
I'm sure we can expand the list if we try.
Keeping in mind all these subtle and not so subtle approaches, neuroscientist as having a long lineage. What seems to be new are the techniques and tools as well as a growing knowledge base about the effects of manipulating parts of the brain.
2. A second cautionary note is that the discoveries about the workings of the brain, like all discoveries, can be used for good or for evil. The motives of the current legion of researchers seem benign: Most of those we hear from have dreams that non-invasive methods of affecting the brain will alleviate depression and anxiety, lead to the ability to control excessive and dangerous appetites and impulses, improve the memory, raise intelligence, and so on. If they have dreams of making money from their enterprises, this would be normal and healthy and should not be criticized. However, as can be seen by scanning the latest books in the field, there is a tendency for some scientists to promise everything to us. We can see this as inspired by the cheerful optimism of pioneers in a new field or as greed or as both.
What I have in mind though in this note is that, when neuroscience, in the future, is able to come up with predictably and invariable ways of influencing us by influencing our brains, there will be those who will seek to apply the discoveries for nefarious purposes. Inevitably, I think, some will try to develop pills for controlling what others think and feel. The same people who now use words and images and threats to influence will welcome a more universally successful and reliable method. Pills will be sought, not just to influence people to do this or that, but to make them.
And people will undoubtedly want to influence themselves in what we observers might think of as dangerous ways. For example, let's imagine that a pill could be developed to eliminate fear. There will certainly be some who will take it. If there were a pill that could eliminate all soft, weak, loving, empathetic feelings, some who have hated themselves for giving into weak feelings will love to take a pill that will anesthetize these feelings and harden themselves. The same people who perform rituals to make others fall in love with them may very well want to slip them a pill. This is already done, and we will just be giving these people more effective methods.
3. It needs to be mentioned that, as of today, May 28, 2015, the benefits we practitioners have derived from neuroscience are sketchy. For every helpful aide, such as the anti-depressants, there are side-effects and failures and only partial or temporary (versus full and permanent) remissions. There is also the feeling that many who take medication have that their personal free will has been bypassed; they feel better but now feel guilty that they didn't do it themselves; so they feel better and worse at the same time.
It is important to remember that many of the dramatic effects that we see in the literature and in videos —such as the remissions or partial remissions of Major Depression or Parkinson's Disease from deep brain stimulation —are still in exploratory phases. The procedures are dangerous and the effects have not been studied enough to understand what is going on and their ultimate value, if any. Undoubtedly the researchers are on to something here, but just what has not yet become clear.
As mentioned in the last note, side effects might be more subtle than what is immediately visible. If people could take pills to make them never again feel weak or empathetic, it is not clear how this will affect them in the long run or how will it affect civilization itself.
4. Another cautionary note is that it will probably not be as straightforward as we might guess to "improve" ourselves and others. Could there be a pill to make us into geniuses? Could a neuroscientist, in an hundred years, have a pill he (or she) could slip to his growing son that would make make him choose neuroscience as a profession and make it so that he will become a genius in the field? I wonder if there might not be a number of factors over which the imagined father could not have control that might be more important than we would think. Take a true genius. No doubt there is something in the brain that contributes to the genius, but there may be many other conditions for genius and for the discoveries to which genius may lead. Motivation, it would seem, must be present and perhaps even a burning need to achieve fame and/or fortune. There has to be a willingness to persist in tasks that are not fun or appealing. There must be, perhaps, a need to avoid getting too close to others (family members included); to get swept up in the lives of others will take time away from the discovery process. And there will, it would seem, be an element of chance that could not be programmed into any pill. A genius is not a genius alone and in a vacuum. He or she will have to have read just the right article or heard just the right idea that dovetails with a current state of mind and sets off a series of interpenetrating associations. And the genius will have to choose just the right line of thought to follow and be able to reject the others.
If it will be difficult or impossible to develop a genius pill that will lead to important discoveries, it may be just as difficult to develop a pill to make a person more loving or one to make a person artistic. One pill that was supposed to make people more creative artistically was LSD. Even if it did allow people, as claimed by Aldous Huxley in his Doorways of Perception and Heaven and Hell, to experience things as the great painters and composers experienced the world, this did not insure that those who took LSD would become great painters or composers. Great visions require the right temperament and skills to contain them or a person can "blow apart" and wind up in a mental hospital. Discipline and persistence and sound judgment and social and emotional balance are all factors in the creative process. This theme is age-old and can be found in such various works of art as Goethe's Faust, and the contemporary musical drama, Phantom of the Opera.
And, similarly, it might not be quite so easy to find a pill that would make people happier or more loving. Being happy or being loving are not simple features. Loving, for example, involves a whole series of cognitive and emotional skills which might include empathy, patience, the ability to forget and overlook certain things as well as to remember others, and so on. It might be that these skills are associated with different areas of the brain, and so a number of pills might be necessary to make a person loving and not just one. And these pill might conflict with each other and with other pills that are being used to dampen or stimulate other areas of the brain.
Everything is possible in this world, but it may be useful to voice these cautionary notes.
5. Finally, the brain itself may not want to be manipulated. It may, as we wonder in the title, have a mind of its own. We already know that people do not like to be manipulated and controlled, or at least not all people and at least not all of the time. Dictatorial rulers develop every method they can to keep people in line and to keep them from thinking and feeling and acting in rebellious ways. And, though they may succeed for days or weeks or years or even centuries, it seems that something inside us reaches a point when we say, "No!"
We all know that people can have "minds of their own." What I am asking here is, "Can brains have minds of their own?" What is mean can be explained as follows. It seems to me that every thing in nature has a resistance to being changed. Let us call this resistance, R. For example, take a granite boulder. If you go up to it and push it or hit it, it will not move. It resists being moved. If you hit it, it remains unchanged. It resists being deformed. A constant flow of water might wear it down over the years and a lightening bolt might split it, so there are things that can change it. However, we can think of it as resisting being changed.
Each substance or type of substance has a different R. Diamonds resist being changed in different ways and with different forces than, say, gold. Gold can be shaped when heated and melts when heated to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. It resists corrosion but will dissolve in aqua regia (nitro-hydrochloric acid). Diamonds crack easier than gold but are more resistant to heat. Neither diamonds nor titanium dissolve in aqua regia, so, for this variable, their R is greater.
A body of liquid has R but R, for them, would be less than R for, say a gold nugget. A mass of gas in a container may have R in spite of the fact that it seems to seek change.
Now what is the R (or R's) of a brain. The brain is about three quarters water and the rest solids and is delicate if we compare it to gold or a diamond. Looked at from one angle, the R of a brain is much lower than the R of gold or a diamond.
On the other hand, there is a sense in which the R of a brain may be greater than the R of gold or a diamond. Let's turn our attention to a tumor. Tumors exist in and are part of living bodies. As part of the body, they consist mostly of water, and their R is not high compared to the minerals. It takes much less to destroy an human body than to destroy a gold nugget or a diamond, and, if a human body is destroyed, any tumor that is part of it will be destroyed also. Yet, from another angle, tumors are very resistant to being changed. With certain types of cancers, no matter what steps are taken to eradicate the tumors, they return. Despite the greatest efforts of our scientists, cancer seem to resist being changed. We are tempted to say, "The tumor has a mind of its own. It as a will to live."
Now the brain is more delicate than a tumor, more differentiated and more subtly organized. In fact, it is difficult to think of any more sophisticated object in the entire known universe. Is it unreasonable to assume that it has a stronger R, at least from certain angles, than tumors or, for that matter than any other object in the universe? Is it unreasonable to assume that a brain, if you try to tamper with it, will resist the change in subtle ways? Maybe it will submit at first, but will it ever stop fighting back? Is it possible that giving pills to affect it will "anger" it and make it change in subtle ways to sabotage the effects of the pill?
If we look at brains from the point of view of evolution the case is even stronger. Individual brains may be changed by this or that influence, but, in the long run, it may be that future brains will become resistant to these influences. This is true for bacteria and viruses which resist, via evolutionary development, our best attempts to change them. It could be argued that it is likely more so for brains which are at a much higher stage of development than bacteria and viruses.
It may be that though, on one level, brains are inferior in R to minerals such as gold and diamonds, on another level they are superior. It may be that the existence of the mind allows for adaptation to dangers that is impossible for simpler entities. The brain (the mind) can devise ways of destroying gold, and, because gold has no brain (or mind), it has no way of adapting.
In short, the fact that individual brains, and brains as a collective, are so complex and subtle and sophisticated, may mean that neuroscientists will have a very tough time getting them under their control. Maybe there will be more trouble than what we have getting tumors and bacteria and viruses as well as insects and weeds and the weather under our control.
To put this sixth thought in still another way, perhaps deep in the brain of the neuroscientist is a wild area that, unknown to even him (or her), does not want to be discovered and herded up and tamed and that will be intent on sabotaging the best efforts of the rest of his brain to civilize it.
While we're fantasizing in this way, why not go one step further? The part of the brain of the neuroscientist that is interested in and values and the study of the brain is itself, in this fantasy, supported by and stimulated by and dependent on in every way other, deeper parts of the brain. Or, perhaps, on the whole brain, the brain itself.This deeper and more pervasive function of the brain that underlies the study of the brain has its own motives and goals, and these goals could be unknown (and even unknowable) to the scientist. If so, then he (or she) is a pawn in some bigger game devised by his (or her) brain and maybe all brains. What we think of as the brain is only a fragment of the real brain, only the grossest picture of the most subtle substance in the universe. Our knowledge of the brain is like an atom in the universe and is, itself, part of that universe and subject to its laws.