3 reflections on the future of neuroscience and a sci-fi scenario
In the second half of the 19th century, a man named Leborge was admitted to Bicetre hospital in Paris. We know that he gradually lost his ability to speak. He understood what others said, but when he tried to speak he could only utter tan. This enigmatic syllable was his answer to any question.
History remembers him with this name: Tan. When he died, a doctor and anatomist, Paul Broca, presented the results of the autopsy to the Paris Anthropology Society: there was a brain injury in the third circumvolution of the left hemisphere. Was the injury responsible for his loss of language? The anatomist rejected the conclusions of his own study because he believed in the principle of biological symmetry, which seemed to be evidence of the order, harmony and perfection of nature.
After investigating other cases like Tan, Broca had to accept that the principle of symmetry was a prejudice. He learnt that direct observation of the world often contradicts the expectations of a cosmic order drawn out in the image of our beliefs.
“if the brain was simple enough for us to understand it, we would be so simple that we could not understand it.” Santiago Genovés
1. Understanding what makes us human
Broca was a pioneer in the discovery of the intrinsic connection between mental abilities and the living reality of organic matter, in particular the nervous system. In the century and a half since the publication about Tan, work on neuroscience has discovered intricate networks formed by one hundred thousand million cells processing information about the world each day inside every human being.
However, the brain codes have not been completely deciphered; in other words how our neural networks generate the infinite varieties of behaviour from dancing to boxing, from political oratory to the writing of philosophical treaties … awareness and free will are borders of scientific knowledge. The anthropologist Santiago Genovés said that “if the brain was simple enough for us to understand it, we would be so simple that we could not understand it.”
2. The ‘Blade Runner’ test
A cinema classic deals in its own way with the core problems of neuroscience. In the first scenes of Blade Runner (1982), by Ridley Scott, a detective submits a woman to a test by which he uses questions to explore awkward situations. “You are reading a magazine. Inside a full page photo of a bare woman. You show the photo to your husband. He likes it so much that he hangs it in the bedroom”.
There are different answers to the question, but the woman answers, “I wouldn’t allow it. I should be enough.” During the interview, the detective analyses the diameter of the woman’s pupils and in the end concludes that she is not human, but a technological replica created by genetic engineering.
Although this is science fiction, Blade Runner poses problems currently being dealt with in the cognitive branch of neuroscience, which is dedicated to studying the relationship between the brain and the mind. Knowing the subjective dimension of the mind, in other words the private part of the experience to which only the subjects themselves have access, is one of the neuro scientific challenges. How do we create and experience thoughts, feelings, intuitions, mental images, which are accessible for each individual but inaccessible to others? How does our brain perform the amazing operations that make this possible?
In Blade Runner, two aspects of cognitive neuroscience are observed. Firstly the use of technological resources: in contemporary research, electrophysiology is used to discover the brain’s electrical activity, how many milliseconds the subject takes to perceive, recognise, access the meaning of the stimulus and generate an intelligent answer.
Nuclear technology is used (positron emission tomography) as well as magnetic technology (magnetic resonance imagenology) to produce photographic images that allow us to view the metabolic and blood changes that reflect the neuronal activity, and with which we form brain maps associated with the subjective events (like the feelings produced, for instance, by music or poetry).
3. Can technology change our subjectivity?
The detective in Blade Runner uses pupil changes to investigate the emotions that allow a distinction to be made of the strictly human qualities of a person. From the viewpoint of cerebral biology, what is it that makes us strictly human? Contemporary science investigates the play between emotions in decision-making over matters which, fortunately or unfortunately, are excessively human; for instance, self-deceit that leads us to make bad economic decisions and to be permanently indebted, or the social resentment that leads a community to choose a racist and sexist presidential candidate.
To what extent do we penetrate subjectivity by means of technological tools? Terrifying current research, for example, seeks to develop devices of synthetic telepathy, or apparatuses to decipher our dreams while we sleep. The scenes of fiction and science approach. In Blade Runner, the psychological realism of the humanoids created by genetic engineering is achieved by “memory implants” taken from other people.
Although this has not been done in human beings, there are successful experiments in which four scenarios have been created in animals. A common fear of many critics consists of supposing that these advances will lead to greater social control or to the commercial exploitation of the secrets of the human mind.
4. A science at the service of people
What’s more, neurosciences have generated creative revolutions over a delicate matter, which is the diagnosis and treatment of neuropsychiatric diseases. An article published in the medical journal Lancet showed that 14% of the world’s disabilities, such as severe depression, Altzeimer’s disease, epilepsy, autism and schizophrenia, are due to neuropsychiatric conditions.
These problems suppose an enormous financial burden on societies, and are sources of suffering that withstand words of condolence or good intentions. The precise knowledge of neurosciences is needed to generate an efficient strategy. The formidable challenges of pathological suffering require exhaustive investigation of the human nervous system, but also sociological, anthropological, economic understanding and the critical and empathic understanding of arts and humanities.
The future of neurosciences has an alternative: to treat the human being as if it were a product of genetic engineering or information technology, a biomass whose laws of conduct can be deciphered to turn it into a robot available for economic exploitation or political control. On the other hand, science can treat the individual as a living being with moral, aesthetic and social feelings, capable of generating an organised collective action to improve conditions of inequity and oppression in communities.
In both cases, neurological science exercises its power, but in different ways. Science at the service of cultural enrichment requires the capacity to interact with other disciplines, and the readiness to reaffirm its ethical commitment.