Is it Your Brain?
Wrye Sententia In Conversation With R.U. Sirius
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 40 memory 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. i.e., 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 scariest|
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. Britton Chance, at the University of Pennsylvania, is working on 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 — who just 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 “transhumanist agendas.”
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.
|CCLE opposes 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 wrote a trenchant 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 whether|
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 educational component.
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 cognitive liberty university 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.)