We can hack our brains to become better people
- Brain stimulation can influence the parts of our brain that govern our morality and cognition.
- We can become fairer, smarter, more empowered, more positive, more caring, and even more transcendent if we change our so-called “virtue control panel.”
- There is always the risk of these highly advanced tools falling into the wrong hands; the future is both frightening and exciting.
Would you ever consider implanting a “virtue control panel” in your brain, a panel that could make you a more righteous and compassionate person? Certainly, you should let scientists send electrical currents through the neurons of your brain for about ten minutes every day, or consent to having a brain chip embedded in your head. Take all the time you need to think about it, but know that the future is already here: over the past two decades, neuroscientists have constantly altered specific structures of our brain to measure the effect on our moral code.
“Part of the argument rests on what is called lateralization of the brain,” James J. Hughes— associate provost at the University of Massachusetts Boston and executive director of the university’s techno-progressive think tank, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies — says Popular mechanics.
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Cerebral lateralization is the view that different parts of the brain perform different functions; by increasing or decreasing activity in these different sections, we can influence how we think, feel and behave, scientists believe. It is this property of the brain that neuromodulation, the delivery of electrical or pharmaceutical agents specifically to an area of the body to affect or modify the nerves, could exploit to bring about a more morally and cognitively enhanced humanity. Hughes explains this concept in depth in a chapter of the book Politics, identity and neurotechnology: the neuroethics of brain-computer interfaces.
We have been trying to improve our morals and our cognition for centuries, but mainly through drugs. “Drugs like [synthetic] oxytocin increases the trust we have in others. Stimulant medications reduce restlessness and increase our focus on tasks. There are various studies showing that drugs have moral consequences on our behavior,” says Hughes. However, the drugs are a bit direct in their approach and tend to affect almost all systems in our body.
How does neuromodulation work?
Neuromodulation has remarkable specificity, says Hughes. “You’re only targeting the part of the brain that needs change.”
We can do this from the outside, by sending electric currents or magnetic waves directly to parts of the brain from the outside – these are transcranial direct current stimulation and transcranial magnetic stimulation techniques, respectively. Or, we can opt for more invasive brain-computer interfaces. An example is vagus nerve stimulationwhich consists of implanting electrodes in vagus nervethe longest and most complex of the cranial nerves which is heavily involved in lowering our blood pressure and heart rate, thus moderating our “fight or flight” system.
Another technique is deep brain stimulation (DBS), a neurosurgical procedure that places electrodes directly into the brain. The deeper the intervention, the better the results. “External neuromodulation can focus on one centimeter of brain tissue while DBS can create an electrical cascade influencing 100,000 or more neurons,” says Hughes. (This is still not very stimulated considering that the human brain contains about 100 billion neurons and about 100 trillion interconnections between them).
Miracles Happened When Lab Researchers Tried To Increase Self-Control, Empathy, Intelligence And Even Spiritual Experiences inside the lab. But what happens outside experimental settings, in the unpredictability of the real world? “Although valid under controlled conditions, the effect of such modulation may be attenuated in real-world contexts, where the combined activation of multiple neurocognitive networks works to affect how we think about and respond to various environmental cues, particularly in contexts and circumstances”, James Giordanoprofessor of neurology and neuroethics at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC, says Popular mechanics.
When we modify certain traits and tendencies to fit a set of sociocultural norms that are considered “right” or “good,” we are walking on thin ice, says Giordano. “What is morally ‘good’ may be the reality of another of what is considered harmful, disruptive and ‘evil’,” he explains. “There is no ‘moral circuit’ or ‘moral core’ that can be turned on or off. Morality is a social construct,” he says.
Hughes couldn’t agree more. Our vision of moral enhancement will be the central enigma of neuromodulation as it progresses. Certain intuitions that we have inherited from our evolutionary past, such as “you shall not kill”, are here to stay. Others, like nepotism, which is the instinct to prioritize one’s own family over the interests of others, have been ignored since the Enlightenment, says Hughes. “The Taliban have a totally different ethical system than NATO,” he continues. We can find more common ground if we neuromodulate not just one virtue, but a total of six, says Hughes in his 2022 paper. These are self-control, benevolence, intelligence, fairness , positivity and transcendence.
Let’s say we want to create a fairer society. Equity is the ability treat others fairly and fairly without showing favoritism or discrimination. “A person who is racially biased and shows a lot of disgust or fear is very much ruled by their amygdala,” says Hughes. The amygdala is a almond-shaped mass of gray matter within each cerebral hemisphere, and it is the primary generator of our “fight or flight” response system and the resulting conditioned fear. On the contrary, behind our eyes and our forehead is the prefrontal cortex, a structure responsible for our complex cognitive behavior and moderating our own social behavior. “The stronger your prefrontal cortex relative to your amygdala, the greater the fairness. You can either tell your amygdala to shut up or ignore the fact that your amygdala is directing your actions,” says Hughes.
What’s the worst case scenario?
What happens if these sophisticated tools fall into the wrong hands? Elon Musk’s brain chip company Neuralink might conjure up some of our worst dystopian nightmares: what if hackers got ultimate control over someone’s brain? It would be like suicide for the human spirit. Likewise, what if a current dictator uses DBS to create a super-army of soldiers programmed to commit the craziest atrocities without an inch of regret?
“We need to ensure that the application of technology is itself moral,” Bena Ammanathexecutive director of the Global Deloitte AI Institute, says Popular mechanics. “Any mature technology ready for public adoption must come with transparency and respect for people’s privacy and consent based on a full understanding of the technology and its potential impact on them,” says Ammanath.
Hughes, meanwhile, says the debate is political. “With almost any technology, when people fear it will be used in a fascist or totalitarian way, the real problem is fascism and totalitarianism. It’s not the tool,” he says.
Take, for example, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) of 1996. It was signed by 172 countries, which agreed to ban “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion anywhere in the world”. These are types of collective actions we could take to ensure our neuromoral improvement doesn’t open a Pandora’s box, suggests Hughes. (Nevertheless, it should be noted that even the CTBT needs the signatures of eight other countries to enter into force: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States, the United States and China being the two major nuclear powers in the world).
When we decide to turn the switches on and off in our virtues control panel, we recognize that the self is “a useful illusion, a set of various cognitive processes,” says Hughes. Nihilistic? Rather the opposite.
“By coming out of what’s called the default mode network in the brain (which is the part of the brain that’s associated with self-referential processes and all things ego), we are free to live in the moment and step out of the things we know for sure. We step out of the nature of the reality that we are certain of,” says Hughes.
Through this lens, the Robotic Virtues Control Panel becomes something of a tool to see reality in a new and fascinating light.
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