Thursday, February 16, 2006

21st Century Brian, er, sorry, Brain


Viagra for the brain? I find the idea morally obnoxious, of course, but with my memory...? A little chemical help now and then wouldn’t hurt would it?
Its a question we are all going to have to face sooner or later. Do we stick with the neurones we've got, or do we chemically enhance them?. A new generation of drugs and artificial means of manipulating the brain are on the way which will make us happier, smarter, better people.
Or so say the pharmaceutical companies and genome jockeys. Genetic engineering, computer mapping plus a little serotonin could liven up our dull grey matter and create an Eternal Sunshine of the Perfect Mind. Hollywood is fascinated. But Stephen Rose, one of Britain’s leading neuroscientists, doesn’t buy it. Rose is one of our foremost neuroscientists, specialising in memory. But he has a philosophical aversion to the new therapies, and he doesn't believe the hype.
Rose has little time for reductionists who hold that human consciousness can be reduced to electrical activity, still less genetic determinists, like Stephen Pinker, who believe that everything, from criminal behaviour to artistic appreciation, is all laid out in the genes.
The human brain has a hundred billion nerve cells, with a hundred trillion interconnections. It is the most complex phenomenon in the known universe, according to Rose - except for the society it lives in. For the mind doesn’t exist in isolation - suspended, autonomous, self-contained. It only realises itself in association with others. “The mind” says Rose, “is larger than the brain”.
To improve individuals, he argues, you would also have to improve their relationships. No man is an island. To create perfect people, you would have to create a perfect society first. This essentially humanist perspective leaves Stephen Rose with a healthy scepticism about the claims made by what he calls the “neurogenetic-industrial complex” about their chemicals and molecular manipulation.
This scepticism is admirable. However as we all know, the drugs do work - after a fashion, and there are more and more of them coming onto the market which alter mood. Moreover, my generation has grown up with bootleg pharmotherapy. Mind-altering substances - from ecstasy to magic mushrooms - have never been more freely available on the black market. In future, we will be taking a lot more of them, on prescription or illegally.
Rose compares the new mind-improving drugs to the steroids taken by Olympic athletes. They can give you an edge, certainly. But just as an athlete’s physical limits are pre-determined by biology, so the improvements in the working of the mind are limited by the social and evolutionary context in which the mind has developed.
Example. Forty four million Americans are said to be suffering from depression, a massive increase in only two decades. Anti-depressive drugs may alleviate symptoms, but they can’t deal with the roots of the current epidemic, which Rose argues are not micro-biological or genetic but social in origin - the result of a society in which the pressure to achieve and consume have outstripped the human mind’s capacity to cope.
Putting everyone on Prozac is not the answer. This ‘wonder’ drug was once seen as a royal road to confidence and well-being for all. As we now know, the claims made by the pharmaceutical companies who promoted the SSRI antidepressants, were false. Prozac’s side-effects are in many people worse than the condition the drug is supposed to treat.
Rose is particularly worried about the current epidemic of Ritalin prescribing. In Scotland prescriptions for this increased by 68% between 1999 and 2003 alone. No doubt "The Scotsman" will say this is another of the downsides of devolution. But the real motivation comes from parents wanting the best for their children.
This is where Rose’s relatively sangiune approach to the developments in brain research breaks down. While I’m sure he is right that the idea of fundamentally altering the brain , by chemical or genetic means, is largely science fiction, there seems little doubt that we are tumbling toward a chemical future. If substances like Ritalin can make children concentrate and get better grades, then parents will be demanding it is dispensed like school milk. And if violent criminals can be pacified by neural imaging techniques, governments are going to want that too. We are looking at a very different kind of society in future, and a very different kind of mind.
Dialectics, to use an old Marxist joke, is a two way street. While the mind is made by society, society is also made by the mind. If genetic and chemical engineering becomes widespread, that will begin to impact reflexively on consciousness itself. Hook that up to developments in nanotechnology and computers and we are looking at the world of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” becoming reality .
This book is very much harder to summarise than it is to read. It is an engaging and accessible introduction to some very weird science. Indispensable reading for anyone interested in some of the most important developments of our age. But don’t expect it to put your mind at rest.

No comments: