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from the CCLE.
Is it Your Brain?
Wrye Sententia In Conversation With R.U. Sirius
No. 5 NeoFiles (Febr. 2004)
Cognitive liberty ... the individual’s right to control her own brain.
It’s the sort of thing that has been the subject of beaucoup novels and
movies. It’s been a topic of conversation — directly or indirectly — at one
point or another, for almost every thinking person living in advanced
technological civilization. It’s been floating in the psychic ether at least
1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World ... hell, maybe since the
first mesmerist tricked the other tribe members into giving him most of the
coconuts. But I don’t believe there has ever been an organization dedicated
to the defense of freedom of thought.
Enter The Center for
Cognitive Liberty & Ethics , operating out of Davis, California —
advocating, analyzing, and educating around cognitive liberty issues; filing
amicus briefs and generally bringing brain rights into the civil realm.
As a director of the CCLE, puckish and brilliant Wrye Sententia oversees
projects that aim to focus public attention on cognitive technologies in
relation to individual rights of mind (neuroethics), as well as
drawing attention to neuroethical concerns about trends in
psychopharmacology and related cognitive neuroscience fields. She is
currently completing her Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis.
NEOFILES: Draw a link for our
readers between the basic notion of cognitive liberty and the pursuit of
self-enhancement, longevity, intelligence, expanded possibilities,
technological development, scientific exploration, etc.
WRYE SENTENTIA: That’s a very radial
question — in the sense that each area deserves its own discussion .... I
should probably define what we term cognitive liberty — the right of a
person to think independently, to have decision-making authority over
matters affecting his or her mind, and to engage in the full spectrum of
possible thought. What we’re really talking about is a fundamental right to
freedom of thought — something that is supported by the US Constitution as
well as the United Nation’s
Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of religion that has typically
been associated with "freedom of thought" is important, but so are freedom
of speech and our right to (brain) privacy. What we think of as freedom of
thought is changing in today’s emerging age of advanced medicine and
neurotechnologies, and our focus at the CCLE is increasingly relevant to
some of these social and cultural developments — like the ones you mention.
These changes are opening up a whole spectrum of exciting possibilities, but
also bringing on a new level of threat — in terms of invasive technologies.
Say, for example with self-enhancement, there are everyday people who are
pushing the envelope not only over the question of whether or not they can
use a particular drug to alter consciousness to experience a different
perspective, say as Aldous Huxley did with mescaline, but today some people
are using both prescription and non-prescription drugs to self-medicate
their brain states on a regular, or quasi-regular basis. I’m not even
talking about SSRIs, which is inducing a whole other area of cultural
transformation. One interesting thing for me, is how the sci-fi of mind
technologies — hard, soft and wet — in the 1980s-1990s cyberpunk &
post cp fiction
connected all the wires in the head before most people were paying attention
to seemingly far-off fictions of our near-future now.
NF: Neurotechnology definitely
seems to be coming of age. CCLE advocates both an individual’s right to use
these tools to affect her own brain and opposes the coercive use of these
tools by authorities to alter or read other people’s brains. So I guess the
question would be, what are the most exciting (in the positive sense) and
the scariest of the neurotechnologies current or on the immediate horizons?
WS: Positive or negative tech is a
spin that really depends on what your purpose or personal limits are — even
scary technologies and drugs may be sought out by a thrill seeker or limit
breaker. I can imagine neurotechnologies emitting a sort of pheromone for
the cavalier cyber- or psychonaut. I assume by scary, you meant what I do:
qualifying what others do to us without our consent as fairly scary.
To come at this from, well an odd angle that will probably alienate some
of your readers — did you read the news story about Armin Meiwes,
a guy in Germany who was recently convicted for having solicited,
found, bound, killed, and then cannibalized a consenting victim? I guess as
long as they were consenting adults in the privacy of their own home ... if
you take self-selecting cannibalism as a limit case on human head trips,
there’s quite a
|Over 40 memory drugs
are being developed.
few new and emerging neural agents that will seem truly benign in
comparison and so may be tolerable in a free society. I should set a caveat
here before I get into trouble — my quirky examples don’t reflect on the
CCLE’s position, just on me even though I am one of its directors. The
CCLE’s stated position is that authoritarian governments do not work well
with personal choices, and that more personal freedom, rather than less,
should be the rudder in guiding sustainable social policy. Who am I to say
what is right for you? Unless, of course, it is to say that authoritarianism
isn’t. I’m aware of the dilemma and the need for concessions — the questions
are: what is negotiable, what is not, and who’s deciding?
A number of drugs are in clinical trials right now that promise to change
our capacity to remember. I know of over
drugs that are being developed. Most of them will be billed as aids
for people with a memory disorder, specifically Alzheimer’s disease. From
what I understand, most of these drugs work by inhibiting an enzyme that
otherwise destroys the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain — the
drugs are what are called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. If you prevent
that enzyme from doing its job, then this neurotransmitter — which can also
act as a neuromodulator — lingers at the synapse for a longer period of
time, something that works favorably on memory.
For Alzheimer’s patients or for those who, in the future — thanks to
personal genomics — may undergo pre-diagnosis for a likelihood to develop
the disease, these are very promising applications of neuropharmacology and
biochemistry. But the question with any deficit drug of this kind is, what
might it do to people whose baseline is "normal" memory capability? Can such
drugs enhance or improve a healthy memory? Similar questions have led
SSRIs into the mainstream of consciousness as prescriptions for Prozac
et. al. have expanded from treating the severely depressed or
dysfunctional, to the mildly impaired, and even — I imagine — to treating
the just curious. e. i., treating those who want to see what kind of an
"edge" a daily dose of enabled serotonin might bring to mood, productivity,
creativity, etc. Take, for instance, a term like
"mind-styling" that cropped up in a NY Metro article a few months
back as a descriptor on where our culture is er ... headed. Even though a
plant like marijuana is a tried and true mood or appetite enhancer, it’s got
the stigma of an illegal drug. I’m confident it’s easier to get a
prescription for antidepressants than it is to get a medical marijuana
prescription — even in California, Oregon, or the other states where this
regulatory issue is currently being battled out.
Getting back to the relativity in assessing good drugs or bad drugs —
some see this type of diagnostic creep or even drug diversion as a scary
consequence of pharmaceutical or medical overreach. Others, see it as a
positive outgrowth of available choices. I’m not saying, of course, that
something like these emerging memory enhancers will work for everyone in
every circumstance or even in limited circumstances. Daniel Schacter, at
Harvard, does a good job in his book
The Seven Sins of Memory in parsing out the complexity of memory
functions in humans. Certainly memory drugs that are now coming down the
pike are far from being able to cope with the intricacy of the brain-mind’s
ability to register, store, and retrieve knowledge in different ways and in
differing conditions or circumstances (what about memory that may not be
stored in the brain, but in our limbs, or in our chakras ...?). I just want
to signal that the research and the funding are out there, trying to solve a
problem and in doing so, they’re creating — whether disingenuously or simply
as a side effect — a much larger potential market of healthy minds. Right
now pharmaceutical companies are pouring billions of dollars into R& D of
memory drugs alone.
In any case, it’s an exciting area to watch for breakthroughs regardless
of whether you agree with the particulars.
As far as mind control technologies coming to earth, sadly as paranoid as
it may sound, the government does want to be inside your head — at least in
some contexts which they themselves admit to readily enough in today’s
climate, including (but not limited to) the courts, the schools, and the
airports. While something like terrorism is a legitimate concern, the
problem, as we easily see around us living here in the post-9/11 United
States, is that rallied fear is a double-edged weapon that is capable of
mobilizing not only an "us" against a perceived enemy but also a U.S.
against its own complacent citizenry. I would hate to be a willing party to
being found, bound, and cannibalized in my civil rights. Asserting cognitive
liberty, in that it embraces brain privacy, autonomy and choice, is a way to
reclaim a heretofore assumed right to freedom of thought in the face of
technologically-enabled, mental diagnostics and mental surveillance.
|What are the
of the new
Now that neurotechnologies are, as you say, coming of age, we need to
rethink what are permissible intrusions (if any) on an individual’s private
freedom of thought. Again, this is not to ignore that we are always in some
way influenced or manipulated in our thinking — this is what advertisers in
bed with psychologists worked on for the better half of the last century.
Political and religious ideologies — same principle, different techniques,
all result in that we as so-called individuals are at the mercy of our own
ingrown and inbred prejudices and predilections. But never before have these
personal beliefs been poised to be so readily on public display regardless
of what you do or don’t say. Until recently, the idea that one’s thoughts
were beyond the reach of the law (you have the right not to
self-incriminate) was pretty much taken for granted. But what happens if you
don’t say anything, but
your brain waves do? What then? There are a number of these sorts of
more invasive technologies in labs across the US now, and these lead into
the kinds of issues that the CCLE is trying to anticipate, expose, and
monitor with stronger cognitive liberty protections.
Take the increased interest in "deception detection" technologies that
are big right now with the military, the FBI, the CIA, Homeland Security,
etc. Anything that can improve upon the existing, and hotly debated,
polygraph is fair game for research and government funding.
Chance, at the University of Pennsylvania, is working on LED
detectors that scan your brain directly for emotional responses to lies.
Daniel Langleben, a colleague of Chance, is working with
fMRI brain imaging to detect lying in study volunteers. Then of
course, Larry Farwell, the darling of the media because he came up with the
riveting term, "brain fingerprinting" is already having some success getting
brain fingerprint tests admitted in the courts. Farwell’s technology, based
on what’s called the P300 wave test, again requires that a subject be
voluntary - at least enough to undergo scalp sensors and watch a computer
screen for clues of guilty knowledge. Farwell —
moved his lab to Seattle — is getting a disturbing amount of media
attention for what he’s got to offer. He’s even managed to get a Government
Accounting Office Report written up on his proposed anti-terrorist screening
device. Not coincidentally, that GAO report was issued in the month
following September 11th of 2001.
NF: Similarly, back to your
discussion of drugs,
performance-enhancing drugs are in the news, psychological "help"
drugs for various perceived problems are ubiquitous (even for school
children), nutrients and commercial brain food drinks are available
everywhere. What do you make of all this?
WS: Well, the steroid craze in sports
is interesting ... did I really hear President Bush in his State of the
Union address plead with professional athletes to be "examples for young
people" by abstaining from steroids? How reptilian of him. The
self-selecting use of steroids is one of the inaugural case studies in
society where concerns over enhancement were first aired. This and elective
plastic surgery have been hot issues for bioethicists with an eye to
What’s more subtle and more interesting to me, are the ways that
mind-sculpting is both banalized and vilified in our culture. I suppose
Ritalin and like-stimulants are another example of a type of prescription
drug that has slipped into the category of performance-enhancing drugs for
the non-sick as much as for those with something that resembles the DSM-4’s
[Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, 4th edition,
1994] loosely diagnosable ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]. I
read that Ritalin is the most popular drug on college campuses today as
adult students are finding it an excellent study aid. [See
"Academic Doping"] I’m not sure what this says about how society
will cope with new generations of overachievers rather than more legendary
generations of slackers, but maybe it’s for the best — at least it is for
the GDP. I don’t mean to be unnecessarily cynical, but in some sense, this
is what stimulant drugs for children are aimed at, what I like to call
cubicle consciousness. I was just talking today with a neighbor who’s 12
year-old son has trouble concentrating in school and is being called a
"borderline case" — which in his case, means that because his parents refuse
to place him on prescription stimulants, he is repeatedly tested for
learning disabilities and alternately scores "genius potential" and
"diagnosed ADHD". Surprise, surprise! Either the diagnostic test or the
school system is failing him. I mean this in the largest sense.
The CCLE is starting a new project this year called "Choices for
Children" and we’re going to be looking at the Ritalin issue in the context
of free thought, the coercion of parents and kids, and what we can do about
it. Our gut feeling is that, as much as possible, parents should be trusted
to make decisions for their children unless the kids can clearly make these
for themselves; and, that the State should be kept in check in terms of what
they are able to require parents to do — for instance conditioning a child’s
attendance in public school on the taking of Ritalin. There are 3 federal
bills and a number of state bills we’re tracking on this issue
Nutriceuticals, cogniceuticals, emoticeuticals — Zack Lynch, who authors
the Brainwaves Blog
for Corante News is a great source for up and coming "neuroceuticals," as he
terms them. I’m undecided on the merits of the panoply of over-the-counter,
under-the-counter psychopharmaceuticals and other nutritional agents but I
do have my favorites. Now that I mention it, I probably should in the
interest of full disclosure — though I hope it’s clear we’re not selling
anything but ideas here — let you know that the CCLE recently asked Mr.
Lynch to join its Board of Advisors.
coercive use of technologies to
read people's brains.
Food-for-the-brain or managing healthy brains and exercising the mind
(whether spiritually or intellectually or pharmaceutically) for quickened
thinking are rudimentary health concepts based in biochemistry. This is an
area which deservedly gets a lot of attention from professionals and health
gurus who have assessed our nutrient-depleted food and water supply and are
saying, "hey — that kid may not need medication, maybe he just needs some
exercise and less corn syrup in his diet." There’s again the whole issue of
the therapy-to-enhancement slide rule. One of our supporters whom I respect
a lot recently challenged us to think about cognitive liberty in relation to
this very fundamental aspect of "undernourished" thinking — and how to
improve deficits caused by bad food, bad water, etc. This is of course a
huge environmental and health issue, but it’s also one I want to consider in
relation to, well, thinking.
NF: Civil liberties organizations
like the ACLU frequently confront issues in which the correct side (for
them) isn’t so clear, for instance a student who wants to pray in front of a
graduation assembly. Have you confronted questions like this? If so,
discuss. If not, imagine and discuss.
WS: Thanks for asking. It’s unusual
that we get inquiries sensitive to this sort of dilemma. We’ve definitely
faced some complex issues that tend to get even more snarled when you try to
piece out sides. Sometimes, just deciding whether cognitive liberty is at
stake puts roadblocks in our work--as with
Brighthouse Institute for Thought
Sciences’ controversial work.
NeoFilers may remember the flurry of press about "finding the
brain’s buy-button" more than the name of the company. In any case,
Brighthouse conducts "Neuromarket" research using fMRI brain imaging on
willing, paid test subjects and then extrapolates from that data, the most
likely emotive brain responses to aim for with various products, ads, etc.
The information they glean enhances their ability to create effective
advertising. Is this a cognitive liberty issue? How is neuromarketing
different from marketing in general? What about the prospects of an
unwitting public suddenly fulfilling an advertiser’s wet-dream by being
"inexplicably drawn to buy" a particular product or service (or politician)
whose presentation has been perfected by neuromarketing? When indirect
coercion comes in, there’s a whole realm of social policy that has to be
carefully thought out. We try to assess at core whether an issue presents a
direct infringement on the brain’s electro-chemical states. If
neuromarketing is just marketing and manipulation, we have these already as
much as we may dislike them. Persuasion in any form has always been aimed at
"controlling" our minds. For now, neuromarketing is on our radar, but we’re
not attacking Brighthouse, as some would like us to.
Another thorny rose relates to the exciting research and development
being done now on memory enhancing drugs, as I’ve mentioned, but also on
memory attenuating drugs. Assuming in principle, that it’s one day feasible
to erase memories with drugs or other technological intervention, does an
individual have the right to erase his or her own recollection of the past?
The recent past only? The distant past only? An entire mind-wipe? What if
that person is on trial for a crime? What if he or she is subpoenaed to
testify before congress in — say, an ENRON inquiry, or a UN WMD commission?
What then? Richard Glen Boire, the other CCLE director and staff attorney
series of cognitive liberty arguments defending the right to erase
your own memories that were posted to the Corante News Brainwaves Column
last August. I’d recommend that as reading, as well as the replies and
rebuttals, to anyone who wants to experience the cascading complexity of
this sort of issue.
A lot of the time when we address cognitive liberty cases, people want us
to take a stand — for or against — a particular, identifiable position or
side. But that’s not how freedom works. Think about freedom of speech: if we
truncate one person’s right to say disagreeable words, we necessarily limit
our own rights to speak out as well. How much more so, if we allow
restrictions or limits on "disagreeable thoughts"?
Freedom of thought, particularly as we’re framing it in terms of brain
privacy, autonomy, and choice, is what supports a host of other important
protected freedoms (free expression, freedom of religion, the 4th Amendment,
and the 5th Amendment). Each of us is capable of seeing how our protected
freedoms are vulnerable to a blunt shredding at the hands of power. Rather
than trying to protect my freedom against yours, we really need to focus on
how we can better ensure the freedoms of everybody, within the guidelines of
a social contract of course.
For me, the ideal for a workable social contract in a free society
protects not only the "us" of a like-minded community, but also the
otherwise self-contained "bad guys" who may be off in a corner cussing and
throwing sand in their own sand box. A true democratic state (or if we can
ever hope, a globe), has got to make better room for the "unsavory," the
"distasteful," the "immoral," etc. So long as the perceived enemy is only
swearing blue and kicking sand in his own eyes, in his own space and not
casting shadows, there’s little at issue. Other than allowing the aspersions
of his neighbors gossiping at his "offensive" behavior, "filthy" language,
maybe even his "smelly" cigars, we should have no say whatsoever in what he
does with his own life. The bandwagon of the self-righteous always seems to
have room for one more person’s morality forced on another. It’s not enough
to be seeped in postmodernity, I’d like to live in post-morality — where we
could each civilly despise each other, and agree that that’s ok. In my
opinion, any paternalism that gets our government involved in trying to
oversee the lives of its private citizens is a serious overreach of power.
NF: Tell us a bit about the
educational aspects of CCLE?
WS: A German dramatist once said:
"When I hear the word culture, I cock my revolver" and in some ways, of
course speaking poetically, I feel the same about the concept of
"education." That’s not to say that an active exchange of information isn’t
educating, but it’s to take issue with the idea that education can be
institutionalized effectively — categorized, and then categorically ignored
like an always-already-answered multiple-choice question box. I always
perversely chose to bomb these kinds of tests by obstinately picking D: none
of the above.
|We try to assess
an issue presents a
direct infringement on
the brain or indirect
Education needs to get us out of the box, not penciled in it. That said,
(laugh) the CCLE is essentially classified by the feds as a "501(c)(3)
educational nonprofit," so most of what we do is mandated to have an
Typically any work we do has an array of goals we hit, and letting people
know about cognitive liberty — what it is, how they and their freedom of
thought will be affected by developments in medicine, technology and the
law, is where a lot of emphasis goes. We also educate lawmakers, judges,
media reporters and other professionals on the implications of their own
work in relation to freedom of thought. And then, there’s an entire
curriculum that’s available at our website for a
loosely-orchestrated course called "Cognitive Liberty & Neuroethics." This
course was developed a couple summers ago; I’m intending to update that in
the next few months, in light of a whole avalanche of research that has come
out since that resource was put together by our dear Summer Fellow from
Canada, "me:me sous rapture." [Ed.: His nom de guerre.] (BTW, the
"Summer Fellow Program" is itself an educational component where people come
and work with the CCLE.)
In terms of current projects, the CCLE is launching
Judges Against the Drug War,
an online database (in March 2004) that will compile published legal
opinions of judges who are openly critiquing federal and state drug
prohibition. The idea is that most of these sorts of comments remain buried
in legal archives and that many people are unfamiliar with conducting
searches for legal data. By compiling and maintaining a growing database
documenting the government’s own judges objections and disgust at this
ongoing social disaster, we will provide a much needed educational service
for defense attorneys, judges associations, the media and an interested
public in assessing the efficacy of the War on Drugs.
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