Neuroenhancement: The Shadow Worlds of Science or Economy?

“Free will is an illusion,” Sam said in a strange tone.

– R. Scott Bakker,  Neuropath 

Happened on an article over at Mindhacks which is actually old hat, but made me think about both the uses and abuses of our new cognitive neurosciences. He talks about an essay in the British Journal of Psychiatry in which the so called new and cognitive enhancement medicines are already set to improve ethical behaviour and we should be prepared for a revolution in ‘moral pharmacology’. In one article the experts conclude that as cognitive neuroscience and related technologies become more pervasive, using technology for nefarious purposes becomes easier.1 As the study suggests “the intelligence community (IC) faces the challenging task of analyzing extremely large amounts of information on cognitive neuroscience and neurotechnology, deciding which of that information has national security implications, and then assigning priorities for decision makers”. You can bet that if there asking questions about the moral implications that there already thinking about how they can use these new sciences for war. With all the new imaging technologies along with new pharmacological neuromedicines a whole new world of human experimentation is taking place under our noses. It could be asked, What types of experiments are being done? How are the experiments being controlled and monitored, and why were they chosen? How would human experimentation be conducted outside accepted informed-consent limits?

And where there is money and corporations involved there are patents. New U.S. and international market incentives are driving this research into neuropsychopharmacology. But as he suggests even though the fact that many currently marketed drugs are or have been major sources of profit the ethical concerns have gone unnoticed. A whole new underground or shadow market economies will arise. Neurotechnology enhancement market is analogous to the athletic performance enhancement market. People will make the choice to take illegal and off-label prescription neuropharmaceuticals even if they do not know the side effects or believe that the side effects are worth the potential enhancement. This controversial market will grow dramatically if evidence becomes available that a specific drug is consistently effective in improving performance.(ibid.)

The inevitable slide into war and military weaponry. Drugs are developed to have increased selectivity of effects on cognition or performance might conceivably be integrated into enemy military programs. Their adoption by a military force, for example, might be facilitated both by their targeted effects and by possible reductions in side-effect profiles. Agents now used to enhance cognition or performance can pose safety risks to warfighters that include abuse, misuse (e.g., excessive doses or too frequent use), unintended consequences, unexpected interactions with situations, and alterations in social behavior. Indeed, drug entities with reduced side-effect profiles could achieve greater use, independent of increased selectivity of action.(ibid.)

The National Research Council released a report, Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications, suggesting that enhancement drugs and neurointerfaces, the tailoring of individual soldiers’ training to recent discoveries about the brain from modern neuroscience can provide valuable advances in military instruction. Along with traditional areas of concern to the military like leadership and decision making under stress, the report suggests that the services should also take cognitive fitness, brain-machine interfaces, and biomarkers (biological indicators of brain states) into consideration during basic training. (see Neuroscience Goes to War)

The development of a more humane way of fighting a war by using cognitive weapons could dramatically change the degradation neurotechnology market. Pills instead of bullets. The fear that this approach to fighting war might be developed will be justification for developing countermeasures to possible cognitive weapons. This escalation might lead to innovations that could cause this market area to expand rapidly. Tests would need to be developed to determine if a soldier had been harmed by a cognitive weapon. And there would be a need for a prophylactic of some sort. If a particularly effective degradation product is developed that has few side effects, escalation of this market will be self-fulfilling. The concept of torture could also be altered by products in this market. It is possible that someday there could be a technique developed to extract information from a prisoner that does not have any lasting side effects. Recently, it has been documented in a small study that tDCS delays a person’s ability to tell a lie (Priori et al., 2007).

Pharmacological agents are not used as weapons of mass effect, because their large-scale deployment is impractical; it is currently impossible to get an effective dose to a combatant. However, technologies that could be available in the next 20 years would allow dispersal of agents in delivery vehicles that would be analogous to a pharmacological cluster bomb or a land mine.

Precedents exist for using toxins as weapons delivered by ingestion, transdermally, or by inhalation. Analysts should watch for development of standardized delivery systems that can distribute small-molecule “payloads” over large areas, such as crop fields. Those delivery systems would protect agents from meteorological conditions and then release agents on contact with a soldier. Of particular concern would be a single delivery system that could be easily loaded with different agents, as warheads are switched in an artillery round. This type of system would allow easy crossover to nefarious purposes.

Jonathan D. Moreno in his book Mind Wars: Brain Science in the 21st Century attests at a recent (2010) conference at the U.S. Naval Academy observed, “[s]oldier enhancements, through biological or technological augmentation of human capabilities, reduce warfighter risk by providing tactical advantage over the enemy.”2

The legal angle, or when Governments begin to use these cognitive neruodrugs to control not only prisoners but the public at large. Welcome to the future of social control:

There are instances where it might be possible in the future to control a person’s behavior through the application of drugs or electromagnetic devices. It is estimated that about 25 percent of prisoners are mentally ill. There are currently significant efforts to identify the brain/biological basis of certain types of criminal behavior. What if certain types of criminal behavior had a biological/brain basis and could be prevented with treatment? Some cultures or governments may determine that forced treatment gives them a competitive advantage by reducing the cost burden of disease and illness.(ibid.)

We already know of other times and places when even our own government here in the U.S.A. willingly participated in human experimentation. Between 1949 and 1969, the U.S. Army conducted over 200 “field tests” as part of its biological warfare research program, releasing infectious bacterial agents in cities across the U.S. without informing residents of the exposed areas, as Moreno reveals in this chilling, meticulously documented casebook (Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans  Routledge; 1st edition (May 13, 2013)). A professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia, Moreno (Arguing Euthanasia) served on a Clinton appointed advisory committee that blew the lid off the government’s secret radiation experiments from WWII through the mid-1970s, which involved the injection of unwitting human volunteers with plutonium, uranium and other radioactive substances. His disturbing new book partly overlaps with Eileen Welsome’s The Plutonium Files (Forecasts, Aug. 2), though Moreno’s survey extends further from Walter Reed’s turn-of-the-century yellow fever research to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study; from army and air force mind control experiments (1950–1975) involving ingestion of LSD and incapacitating chemicals by thousands of subjects, often without their consent, to the compulsory vaccination of Gulf War GIs with botulism toxin vaccine not approved by the FDA that may have contributed to “Gulf war syndrome.” Yet, Moreno himself seems to believe the Government as well as military has a right to do this but only under some stringent ethical oversight. When will we ever learn? Liberal oversight, huh?

In another capacity the predictive use of neurosciences to marshal a set of codes to decipher the future of psychopathic behavior is on the table. In his short story, The Minority Report, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick speculates on the complications of a future in which the police use psychic ‘precogs’ to detect violent crimes before they happen. Despite such cautionary tales, however, the public desire for scientific tests of behavioral tendencies may not be easy to ignore—and not just for distinguishing psychopaths. A number of assessment tests are already in use for screening potential employees, and the IAT may not be far behind. It has been used for purposes ranging from the trivial (testing consumer preferences) to those with considerable potential for abuse, such as testing racial biases. As our knowledge of the neurobiological basis of behavior increases, the accuracy and usefulness of behavioral assessment tools will undoubtedly improve, but scientists must take the lead in promoting their appropriate application.(see Predicting behavior)

At Caltech’s Behavioral and Social Neuroscience Unit students are studying a range of issues from determining how is it that people make simple choices, such as when deliberating between food options on a restaurant menu, include questions such as how it is we can learn from past trial and error behavior to make decisions in the future, what are the factors governing how we interact socially with others, up to establishing how financial markets operate  and the factors influencing decision making in the political process. A core unifying assumption underlying all of this research in BSN is the idea that only by establishing the nature of the computations being implemented by neural systems deep within our brains will it possible to gain insight into how individuals, groups and societies function. (here)

Of course once they find the underlying functions and map the territory will it not lead to a return to behavioral control systems?  In the marketing sector the neuromarketing analysis company NeuroFocus was bought by the Nielsin ratings corporation (here). As they say consumer neuroscience is the application of neuroscience (the study of the human brain and nervous system) to consumer research, in order to determine a consumer’s non-conscious response to brands, products, packaging, in-store marketing, advertising, and entertainment content. So the great marketing masters of the world have a secret weapon, the non-conscious brain offering up its secrets for profit and fun. What will they use this brain science for next?

What about Legal defense or incarceration? Kent Kiehl, a prominent neuroscientist hired to study an admitted murderer was brought in by attorneys as an expert witness to prove that the defendant was a psychopath incapable of experiencing normal emotions like remorse, in hopes the jury could be persuaded to sentence him to life in prison, rather than death. Kiehl has interviewed and used new technologies to scan the brains of more imprisoned criminals than anyone else in the world. Here, he was asking jurors to accept that the brains of some criminals are simply different from the norm and that those differences should be considered during sentencing. “There are abnormalities in his brain function,” the tall, broad-shouldered Kiehl told the jury. Psychopaths make choices, he acknowledged, but “those choices are not necessarily informed by emotion in the same way ours are.”

As one reporter remarked: The law sees people essentially as rational actors, capable of forming intentions, weighing the consequences of their actions and controlling their behavior. As old as civilization itself, the law is inherently conservative, circumscribed by rules and precedent, and rooted in ancient notions of morality and justice. The law is clear: Those who break the rules we have collectively agreed upon make a choice, and those poor choices should be punished. Change in the law usually comes slowly and incrementally, in an orderly interplay of legislation and appellate decision-making that may embrace changing social and scientific norms long after they have gained currency elsewhere.(see A Mind of Crime)

If the old legal system becomes obsolete because of changes in the neurosciences what happens then? Our older view of humans a Rational Animals that emerged during the Enlightenment is suddenly being called into question again. With the Romantic revolt in poetry and philosophy the sciences turned toward organic and vitalist conceptions that tried to compete with the mechanist vision of life and physics. But that battle is no more, now the age of the inhuman begins. If we are just blind rats in a cage, blinded to our own cognitive processes, controlled by decision making neurointeractions that we have no control over what does that make us?

As Sean Spence puts it in his ethical move:

Recent considerations of the ethics of cognitive enhancementhave specifically excluded consideration of social cognitions (suchas empathy, revenge or deception), on the grounds that they areless amenable to quantification. Nevertheless, it would beregrettable if this limitation entirely precluded consideration of what must be an important question for humanity: can pharmacology help us enhance human morality? Might drugs not only make us smarter but also assist us in becoming more ‘humane’? (see Can pharmacology help enhancehuman morality?)

To me to even entertain such options is already to define the human as beyond humane – this is the post-human dilemma in the red zone. Where neocapitalism drives the markets of the posthuman follow, and the sciences, no longer neutral, follow the research money into oblivion.


In my next post I’ll discuss the work of certain neuroscientists that have actually demonstrated the absence of ‘free-will’. In THE NONSENSE OF FREE WILL, Richard Oerton. argues that the traditional  (libertarian, contra-causal, Kantian) notion of free will just can’t be made  sense of, so is literally nonsensical. This is not an original idea of course,  and most philosophers, including Dennett, agree that soul control is incoherent  to the core. In it he discusses the work done in 2007, by neuroscientist John Dylan Haynes of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, Germany, who ran a new experiment. As Haynes describes it “Decisions are caused by unconscious brain processes, then consciousness kicks in later.” In Haynes’ view, our conscious decisions are predetermined by brain activity even if we cannot yet completely decode that activity. “It is subjective experience that you think that you have free will. It’s something that is implausible, its incompatible with the scientific deterministic universe anyway.” As my dear departed Dad once said: “Sometimes you only find what you bring to the table.” Is this a case of scientistic ideology discovering what it expected? Or is there other explanations of the same sets of data? But as one reporter summed it up: At this point, you might wonder whether John Dylan Haynes went into this research with an anti-free will agenda in mind. He would tell you that the answer is no: “People talk to me about determinism and free will a lot, but I actually thought the experiment was about conscious and unconscious processing.” And why does he focus on this area? Simply, “I am interested in interesting questions.” (see Is Free Will an Illusion?)

1. National Research Council (2008-11-06). Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies (Kindle Locations 3966-3969). National Academies Press Short. Kindle Edition.
2. Moreno, Jonathan D. (2012-05-01). Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century (Kindle Locations 2632-2634). Bellevue Literary Press. Kindle Edition.

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