Friday, 20 April 2012

The Future of Neuroscience: Changing The Brain to Enhance…

I thought I’d write a post concerning my disapproval of this article. It seems to be a running theme that I disagree with articles from PsychCentral.

“Changing The Brain to Enhance Well-Being, Happiness”

The article basically states what has been long known – that physical exercise, certain forms of psychological counseling (for some people) and meditation can all increase our well-being. That’s all well and good.

Then comes the part I don’t like: 

“The study reflects a major transition in the focus of neuroscience from disease to well-being.”

I think neuroscience is a great, fascinating subject which has a promising outlook for the near future, with beneficial applications such as the treatment of disease and the study of the human brain/mind. However, when we start using neuroscience to improve our “well-being”, we introduce a plethora of potential dangers and moral issues.

The goal is “to use what we know about the brain to fine-tune interventions that will improve well-being, kindness, altruism. Perhaps we can develop more targeted, focused interventions that take advantage of the mechanisms of neuroplasticity to induce specific changes in specific brain circuits.”

Not only is this sort of research reducing the time spent researching treatment for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (which is much more important at the current time) it also represents the start of a revolution – the designer-brain revolution. Digressing from the article (although relevant), it won’t be long until we can purchase “add-ons” to enhance our well-being, intellect, kindness, altruism etc. “Add-ons” could also be developed to add “additional-features” to the brain, much like add-ons for Firefox.

People will be purchasing these add-ons to enhance their ability; to gain the upper-hand and improve their lives. However, it can be dangerous to modify nature, especially when it comes to the brain. Since the brain is such a complex organ and is fundamental to our conscious existence, tinkering with it could be dangerous in both the short-term and long-term. Of course there will be years of testing before these add-ons are released, but every brain could react differently, and we might not know the long-term dangers until it’s too late.

More importantly, the moral implications are huge. I can imagine various religious groups objecting to the “designer-brain” revolution on the grounds that it is “playing God”. Although I’m not religious myself, I can see where they’re coming from. We are, in effect, tinkering with thousands of years of evolution. Sure, there are many ways in which the human brain/body can be improved for the better. This, however, is a far beyond therapeutic applications.

For a start, the first to get their hands brains on these “add-ons” will surely be the rich. Instantly, we can see that those in power with modified super-brains could leave us all slaves to the authority. Politics would undoubtedly see a shift to the right. However, once these “add-ons” become more readily available, anyone will be able to buy them. At first, it’ll require surgery to install them; but soon enough, you’ll be able to install them yourself at home. Also, much like add-ons for Firefox, there could be a whole market of 3rd-party add-ons (“Make Me Happy V1.0″, designed by “dodgydesigner666″ on “BrainBay”, for example). Whether illegal or not, a black market of brain add-ons would undoubtedly lead to numerous deaths. Plus, your purchased add-ons could be riddled with viruses which upload your thoughts/personal informations to a crook’s (or government’s) inbox. This might be taking the computer-brain analogy a little too far, but you see my point.

Back to the ethical implications, the “designer-brain” revolution could lead to a break-down of society. People would be purchasing these add-ons to “better” themselves intellectually. This would lead to a social divide between those who can access the add-ons (who would become super-intelligent, with the highest-earning careers) and those who can’t (who, well, wouldn’t). People might also purchase these add-ons to improve their well-being. I’m not sure how to put this, but that just doesn’t seem right. There are reasons we don’t always feel great. Negative emotions can be a positive thing – they can help us to realise errors we may have made, and thus we can begin to work on amending them. With these add-ons, we may not feel the need to amend our mistakes, and they’d be repeated. For example, if a person experiences negative emotions as a result of failure, these emotions will (eventually) give them the motivation to make the change, and work on amending their mistakes and achieving to the best of their abilities. Also, to me, achieving to the best of our ability is something we should have to work for. If one person can purchase an add-on to increase their chances of success, then of course that’s unfair on those who haven’t  purchased the add-ons, whether due to choice or not.

This brings me onto my next point. If people are purchasing these add-ons and becoming super-intelligent, sooner or later people will realise that they need to buy them in order to keep up. It doesn’t become a choice anymore, it becomes an obligation to artificially modify your brain. There comes a time when free-will is out the window. With everyone installing “add-ons” into their brains, who’s to say their designers couldn’t be paid to design the add-ons so that their users can be manipulated, and their personal information shared with crooks/the government? We like to think that these things couldn’t, and wouldn’t, happen – but in reality, of course they can.

As Dieter Birnbacher, a philosopher at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany, says: 

"There are risks in technological self-improvement that could jeopardise human dignity. One potential problem arises from altering what we consider to be “normal”: the dangers are similar to the social pressure to conform to idealised forms of beauty, physique or sporting ability that we see today. People without enhancement could come to see themselves as failures, have lower self-esteem or even be discriminated against by those whose brains have been enhanced”, Birnbacher says.

He stops short of saying that enhancement could “split” the human race, pointing out that society already tolerates huge inequity in access to existing enhancement tools such as books and education.

Everybody will enhance theirself to fit what they believe to be correct – what they believe is best for them and society. However, this would drastically affect relations between different cultures – some cultures will be much more advanced than others, and cultures would be much more separated than they are today. This would not only jeopardise international relations, but also the global economy.

I realise that some of my points may be a little far-fetched, but nonetheless, you can see my point. This is all potentially possible.

The world as we know it is changing. (Can you keep up? Buy the latest add-on to inhibit your anxieties and denial and induce a zombified state of acquiescence)

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Wednesday, 4 April 2012

What Your Facebook Account (doesn’t say) About Your Brain

Although I couldn’t find the original papers, after reading this article, I just had to say (write) something. It is the biggest piece of tosh I have read in a while, courtesy of the field of “psychology”.

The article suggests that people who have more friends on Facebook have a larger orbital prefrontal cortex. It then goes on to say that this region of the brain is involved in “complex cognitive processes”, thus implying that using Facebook is a “complex cognitive process”. While I don’t dispute that it is often difficult to keep track of “who is sleeping with whom, who is making alliances with whom”, I would by no means consider this a complex cognitive process. Yet the article appears to suggest some sort of relationship between the number of friends a person has on Facebook and “complex” cognition, suggesting that those with more “friends” are somehow smarter than those with fewer. I would argue on the contrary – those who spend more time on Facebook and less time doing something worthwhile (like complex cognitive processes) are less likely to be smart, surely.

Just a further point, before I go on, the article claims:

“Establishing and maintaining many social relationships requires a great deal of brainpower.”

It may indeed, in reality. I wouldn’t, however, say this was true of “virtual” friends on Facebook. If a person has over 1000 friends, say, on Facebook, are they really keeping track of every single one of them? I highly doubt it.

The article goes on to say that research has shown that monkeys and apes who live in large social groups tend to have larger brain size, specifically of the prefrontal cortex. This is probably true, but again, I point out that Facebook is NOT the same as normal socialising. It definitely isn’t the same sort of socialising the monkeys in the research were doing. Thus, this comparison is invalid.

Furthermore, the article says that:

“…people with larger social networks (including the number of friends on Facebook) also have a larger amygdala (a brain region involved in emotion regulation).”

This seems to imply that people with more friends on Facebook are somehow more emotionally active. I would argue the exact opposite. From my experience, those with many friends on Facebook (>1000) are less emotionally active. They probably have a shallow knowledge of these “friends”, adding them after meeting them once at a party, and then never speaking to them again. How much do they actually communicate with these people, on an emotional level? Not much, I would argue. Besides, I would consider those with a large number of Facebook friends somewhat shallow, trying to show off their “popularity” to their 7364 “friends“.

I don’t know, maybe my dislike for Facebook has influenced my opinions, being a Twitter user myself. Personally, I don’t have many Facebook friends (around 100), since I feel this makes my experience on Facebook more personal. I have more meaningful virtual contact with my friends, rather than being bombarded with “relationship statuses” from people I barely know.

So, does this mean I have a smaller orbital prefrontal cortex? Am I less intelligent as a result? Or do I have a smaller amygdala? Am I less emotional?

I don’t think so.

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