by Steven Rose
reported in the Observer on February 05 2006 on p31 of the Comment section
Brain scientists are on a roll. Concern about rising levels of mental distress have resulted in unprecedented levels of funding in the US and Europe. And a range of new technologies, from genetics to brain imaging, are offering extraordinary insights into the molecular and cellular processes underlying how we see, how we remember, why we become emotional.
Brain imaging has become familiar. Scanners, known by their initials – CAT, PET, MRI – began as clinical tools, enabling surgeons to identify potential tumours, the damage following a stroke or the diagnostic signs of incipient dementia. But neuroscientists quickly seized on their wider potential. The images of regions of the brain ‘lighting up’ when a person is thinking of their lover, imagining travelling from home to the shops, or solving a mathematical problem, have captured the imagination of researchers and public alike. What if they could do more?
Recently I published the results of an experiment in which we looked at the regions of the brain that became active when people chose between competing products in supermarkets. Major companies, ranging from Coca-Cola to BMW, are starting to image the brains of potential customers to study how they respond to new designs or brands. They are beginning to speak of ‘neuromarketing’ and ‘neuroeconomics.’
Such trends may be relatively innocuous, but the increasing state interest in what the images might reveal is less so. Specifically, what if brain imaging could predict future behaviour, or indicate guilt or innocence of a crime? There are claims, for example, that it could reveal potential ‘psychopathy’, that the brains of men convicted of brutal murders show significantly abnormal patterns.
In the current legislative climate, where there have been attempts to introduce pre-emptive detention for ‘psychopaths’ who have not yet been convicted of any crime, such claims need to be addressed critically. They are and will be resisted by the judiciary, but recent developments suggest that this may be a frail defence against an increasingly authoritarian state.
More seriously, there is increasing military interest in the development of techniques that can survey and possibly manipulate the mental processes of potential enemies, or enhance the potential of one’s own troops. There is nothing new about such an interest. In the US, it stretches back at least half a century. Impressed by claims that the Soviet Union was developing psychological warfare, the CIA and the Defence Advanced Projects Agency (Darpa) began their own programmes. Early experiments included the clandestine feeding of LSD to their own operatives and attempts at ‘brain-washing’. These were the forerunners of the hoods and white noise used by the British in Northern Ireland – until judged illegal – and more recently in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, where they inhabit an uncertain borderline between what the US government regards as an acceptable level of violence and the torture that it denies committing.
By the 1960s, Darpa, along with the US Navy, was funding almost all US research into ‘artificial intelligence’, in order to develop methods and technologies for the ‘automated battlefield’ and the ‘intelligent soldier’. Contracts were let and patents taken out on techniques aimed at recording signals from the brains of enemy personnel at a distance, in order to ‘read their minds’.
These efforts have burgeoned in the aftermath of the so-called ‘war on terror’. One US company claims to have developed a technique called ‘brain- fingerprinting’, which can ‘determine the truth regarding a crime, terrorist activities or terrorist training by detecting information stored in the brain’. The stress of lying under interrogation is supposed to result in a specific wave form which electrodes measuring the brain’s fluctuating electrical signals can detect. We may be sceptical about the validity of such methods, but they indicate the direction in which research is heading. The company claims its procedures have been accepted in evidence in court in the US.
The step beyond reading thoughts is to attempt to control them directly. A new technique – transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – has begun to generate interest. This focuses an intense magnetic field on specific brain regions, and has been shown to affect thoughts, perceptions and behaviour. There are suggestions it could be used to control obsessive-compulsive behaviour, while some even take seriously the scenario envisaged in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which TMS was used to erase unwanted memories of a love affair gone wrong. Currently only possible if a subject’s head is put inside the relevant machine, TMS at a distance is now under active military investigation. So is chip technology, which might provide implanted prostheses to overcome sensory deficits or control behaviour, and whose potential bioethics committees around Europe have been scrutinising.
It is tempting to dismiss all these as technological fantasies and their proponents as sellers of snake oil, but the fact that a technology is faulty doesn’t mean it won’t be used. One only has to think of the tens of thousands of lobotomies carried out on schizophrenic patients in the past century. Britain is one of the world’s leading examples of a surveillance society, observing its citizens through CCTV cameras and controlling their behaviour with Asbos and Ritalin. The potential for surveillance of citizen’s thoughts has moved far beyond the visions of 1984
Science cannot happen without major public or private expenditure but its goals are set at least as much by the market and the military as by the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. This is why neuroscientists have a responsibility to make their subject and its potentials as transparent as possible, and why the voices of concerned citizens should be heard not ‘downstream’ when the technologies are already fully formed, but ‘upstream’ while the science is still in progress. We have to find ways of ensuring that such voices are listened through the cacophony of slogans about ‘better brains’ – and the power of the military and the market.