Better, Faster, Smarter
If you were offered a new drug that could make you smarter, calmer, happier, even more ethical, would you take it?
The emergence of brain-enhancing technologies has brought with it an onslaught of critical questions, with few concrete answers: Could these enhancements allow more people to become who they want to be? Or will they cause greater inequities, particularly if the technologies are accessible mainly to the wealthy? What would it mean to have your brain functioning altered, perhaps permanently, by a corporation? What are the ethical implications—individually and societally—for creating a new kind of mind?
Humanities Washington recently held an online discussion that explored the future of the human mind. Featuring William Kabasenche (he/him), philosophy professor at Washington State University and Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau member; Timothy Emmanuel Brown (he/him), assistant professor in bioethics and the humanities at the University of Washington; and Sara Goering (she/her), philosophy professor at the University of Washington.
The following excerpts, edited for length and clarity, are only a glimpse into a much more expansive conversation. Check out the whole conversation on Humanities Washington’s YouTube page.
On the ethics of memory modification:
William Kabasenche: One of the things I think about particularly in relation to memory is identity. I feel like a lot of my sense of who I am is linked to my historical memory of the trajectory of my life, so I can imagine contexts where a memory augmenter or booster would help me to preserve my memory. For people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, if they have people around them who can preserve their identity by preserving their memory even when they can’t remember it themselves, I think that can be a really beautiful thing.
On the other side of the coin, if somebody has a traumatic experience and they have post-traumatic stress disorder—they have memories that intrude on their sense of who they are and who they want to be—in that context, you could have something that, if it doesn’t blunt your factual memory, can at least blunt your emotional memory. So, I could imagine some ways that memory boosting could be good for preserving a sense of identity. I can imagine other contexts where being able to dampen a memory would, at least, have the potential for being able to preserve a healthy sense of my identity.
Sara Goering: I think the worry is in how we start with one relatively narrow context where it might make sense, and then we think very grandly about the improved world that would exist if we could all have that. Even if it is a good thing, it’s not always obvious that everyone having that thing would make it a better world. If I could take a medicine that would improve my memory a little bit, I’d probably be fairly eager to do that, but it might depend on everything else it does in my brain. If I am getting an implant that can also read out activity of my brain and make it potentially interpretable by other people, then I’m not interested in memory enhancement so much. So, we have to put it in this context, both cognitive and social.
On the potential for brain enhancements to make us “better” people:
Sara Goering: I think about some of the work that’s been done, or calls that have been made, from people who are big advocates of moral bio-enhancement. There’s this mentality of, “Let’s offer drugs that will make people better people”—and I think some of that comes from a place of near desperation. They’re looking at what we’re doing to the planet, looking at what’s going on between Russia and Ukraine, thinking about the ways that people behave badly in the world, and feeling that all the things that we do to try to make us care about people beyond just our intimate others is not sufficient to the task. But then, to think that somehow the way that we’re going to deal with these huge problems is by medically or pharmaceutically making us better, it just seems so ridiculously oversimplified in some ways. This doesn’t mean that those drugs can’t help in certain much more narrowly constrained situations, but it seems odd that, in the literature, that is one of the reasons that’s been offered in favor of exploring this and doing more research.
William Kabasenche: My sense is that sometimes we get excited about what science can do without asking whether what science can do is what it ought to do. For instance, oxytocin produces something like trust-like behaviors, but there’s some research that shows that what is produced by oxytocin is not very successful in discriminating context, or evaluating people in whom it’s appropriate to put trust, as opposed to those in whom it’s not appropriate to put trust. If you take an approach that starts with Aristotle and ancient Greek philosophy, a virtue involves not just doing certain things and feeling certain ways about it, but it also involves an ability to discern when and where those feelings are appropriate. So, if trust is a virtue, and I do think it is, then we need to be mindful of the fact that the virtue of trust would also involve the ability to discern the appropriate context for trust.
“My sense is that sometimes we get excited about what science can do without asking whether what science can do is what it ought to do.”
Timothy Brown: I think that it’s not only important to ask ourselves who we should trust and try to figure out how to get people to trust appropriately, I think fear is an issue as well. Are there certain people who need their fear, and need to be able to discriminate between people that they need to fear and people they don’t need to fear? We see so many examples of misplaced fear in this country. My first thought is fatal encounters with the police. I know that as a Black man in the United States of America, when I see a police officer, I am afraid and my fear is appropriate. An intervention that would make me inappropriately trustful of those kinds of people in those kinds of situations, I think we need to think twice about. Not only is it context dependent, we have to think about the historical roots of these interventions and their connections with other similar interventions.
On the oppressive history of “corrective” interventions:
Sara Goering: If we historicize this, we can look at the way psychiatric interventions have been done on women who were “uppity” or to take their places appropriately and, of course, on people of color. There is a relatively narrow range of what is considered healthy behavior, and somehow if we call it healthy, then it seems like we’re just trying to help people thrive, right? But, it’s thriving in a particular context that already has very problematic norms in many cases. I don’t want to say across the board, but we have to challenge rather than try to make us fit those norms.
Timothy Brown: We can’t forget that sociopolitical resistance is often classed as deviant. So, anytime you try to push back on the powers that be, you get called a deviant. This happens in every context of society; it happens in your classroom, in the streets, in protests. We’re seeing it in Russia, where people are getting 15-year jail sentences just for protesting war. Can you imagine that happening here? Well, you don’t have to go too far back to see that that has happened here. It’s the idea of deviance as it pervades culture that is often what drives who we think is morally upstanding and who we think needs to be corrected.
On individual agency and neuroprivacy:
Sara Goering: There are a lot of ways that these technologies can really enhance agency for people who are struggling to do things independently, and so they’re worth pursuing. If we had these implants, we could do a lot of things without moving our bodies, but our relationships with each other might change relatively radically. Being agents in the world—being people who do things and see the impact of our intentions and action on the world—is important. It doesn’t have to all be bodily, because a lot of disabled people enact intentions on the world in all kinds of novel and creative ways, including with the help of other people. Most of us, disabled or not, rely on other people to enact a lot of our intentions on the world. But, I think we won’t even know exactly where we stand or how we separate ourselves from others in the world if we have these devices.
“There are a lot of ways that these technologies can really enhance agency for people who are struggling to do things independently and so they’re worth pursuing…but our relationships with each other might change relatively radically.”
We don’t know phenomenologically what it will be like if the private interior space of my brain stops being just mine, but becomes just interpretable enough that other people can use it and externalize it from my brain. Then, I don’t feel like the same kind of agent because I don’t have that private space. That really is, in some ways, our last very private space. Now we have technology that’s intervening on it for good in ways that you can very quickly see. Now it’s not just what I type into my social media that is accessible and bought and sold, but what’s going on inside of my brain. I think it appears to be a kind of enhancement because I would be able to do all these things that I can’t now do, but writ large and if it becomes more common, it could create a seriously different world than the one that we’re in, which has its problems without a doubt, but there are joyful human things that we do together in this world that we want to try to preserve.
On the importance of centering equity:
Timothy Brown: A lot of these technologies are being developed for what the researchers think are good social causes. We’re thinking about restoration, the future of humanity, so on and so forth. I think the problem is less that we’re moving so fast and more that we’re moving without ethicists in tow. We think about how we can do things in ways that are just, equitable, and so on. Maybe that means slowing innovation somewhat by bringing in groups through formal mechanisms, like companies that consult with vulnerable communities and people of color. I’m particularly worried about Indigenous perspectives being excluded from the development of neurotechnologies. Especially what we’ve seen them go through with genetic technologies and research, I would hate for Indigenous perspectives to be left unconsidered or unincorporated into these technologies and research.
I think the mechanism here is for grant funders, corporations, different organizations to actually bring members of communities in and let them guide research. The real mechanism is in diversifying research and development teams. Scientific researchers and engineering researchers are overwhelmingly white and male. We need to diversify those teams; we need more people from more backgrounds participating.
“The real mechanism is in diversifying research and development teams…We need more people from more backgrounds participating.”
William Kabasenche: One thing that might make me a little bit optimistic is, I truly believe medicine as a profession is a moral community. It’s organized around a set of fundamentally moral goods at the end of the day. Promoting the well-being of patients is not about maximizing profit, it’s about a moral commitment to promoting the well-being of patients. So, I could imagine a world where medicine and the related health care professions would adopt something like a priority commitment. “We’re going to raise the the well-being of the least well-off among us before we further enhance the well-being of the most advantaged among us.” I could see medicine doing it. I’m not saying it will—it’s not a prediction—I’m saying it’s possible.
Sara Goering: There are people like Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist at Columbia, who are pushing for a kind of technocratic oath that would mirror the hippocratic oath. It’s a pronouncement of words, and clearly medicine has had its own huge missteps and legacies of trauma and injustice, but taking that oath in a solemn moment and declaring yourself publicly before others to be somebody committed to these values is something that can be part of a solution. I agree that there have to be structural changes around bringing on ethics, and making sure that the ethics people brought on are, themselves, equity- and justice-focused.
Watch the full “Changing Our Minds” video on our YouTube page.