Our Brains and Us

As we focus on the financial collapse and its economic consequences – and the routines of elections and wars and whatever the New York Times and Washington Post deem to be “news” – in the background we hear the drip, drip, drip of something else. Technologies of this kind and that are slowly but surely enabling us to start remaking not Iraq and Afghanistan, or even Wall Street, but human nature itself.

To say that is to raise the $64,000 question: who picks the stories and decides what is “news”? Who decides the weighting of A and B and C? And were there an ombudsman or an internal affairs department to ask if they got it right, what would he or she say?

For some of us, while the lead news stories are important, there is something else at least equally so. And the latest illustration (brought to us, not least, by the New York Times, though on an inner page, is the development of drugs to enable individuals to get rid of unpleasant memories. Not in the way alcohol can – getting rid of all memories for a few hours; but as a surgical exercise in brain/memory management. Did you catch the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Go see it. It’s zany. But it’s on point. Do we want a world in which we can edit our memories? To which the answer is surely yes, and no, and yes, and no . . . .

Whatever the answer, the idea that we should be able to take charge of what we have remembered is, well, huge. Think about your own memories. Of love, of abuse, of disappointment, of triumph. Of guilt. Of childhood, which sets the memory patterns most of us spend our lives working through. This is big deal.

Of course, there is a lot more to the brain than memory. And efforts to harness its other capacities proceed apace. The brain-machine interface (BMI) may prove to be the biggest deal of the century. Implants to make us smarter or more connected (Google? Instant messaging?) are not any longer in the land of science fiction. Brainwaves, which sounds like a term from the black-and-white world of the 1950s along with ray-guns, are already being harnessed to control video games. Neuro-marketing (which may use MRIs to see how focus groups respond to ad messages) is up and running. The colonization of the brain is already in progress.

Good? Bad? Inevitable? I don’t think we know. Of enormous importance? Indubitably, yet how many of us have grasped that point? Its implications for just about all of human activity are hard to gauge. Hard, partly, because hardly anyone who is not an enthusiast has begin even to think about that they could be. For education, for security, for freedom and privacy, for jurisprudence, for democracy, for business?

We humans have been around a long time. It’s taken all that time for us to come to this particular point, where not only our bodies but our very brains are becoming the subject of our efforts at control and design and, to use the old term, dominion. Shouldn’t we be spending as much attention on this as we are on all the other stuff?


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