By Andreas Roepstorff, Sita Kotnis, August 29, 2008
In his latest commentary on culture and the brain, Jonathan Moreno addresses a crucial issue. So far, this discussion has mainly focused on technological advances brought forward by the rapid development in the neurosciences. These developments are impressive and raise all sorts of hopes and concerns. But as pointed out in the recent National Research Council report and in this roundtable, the debate takes place very much before the fact. It is plausible that research into fields such as neuropharmacology, neuroimaging, and brain-machine interactions may be on the verge of major conceptual breakthroughs, but transitioning this research from the lab to the field, be that civil or military, may not be easy or even feasible.
The ultimate lie detector is not right around the corner, drugs that make a person think, work, or fight forever focused and determined are yet to be seen, and the best ways to interact with the world still appear to be mediated via an extended body with control of that action developing out of recurrent embedded practice. Technology makes new things possible, but does it, by itself, change the name of the game? Does the levelling factor really consist of whether a particular neurotechnological interface is situated on the body or in the nervous system? We suspect that the great divide lies somewhere else. Although we do not yet live in a neurotechnological world, we may already be seeing the contours of a neurocosmological world, that is, a world where the notion that “you are your brain” is so commonplace that it appears immediately evident. This, we find, is a relatively new development.
In his 1994 book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, British scientist Francis Crick claimed: “The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘you,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’ This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it can truly be called astonishing.” In the decade and a half since, this hypothesis has neither been proven nor disproven, but it has been silently transformed into a truism, making it a logical next step to initiate research into all sorts of new fields such as neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, neuroaesthetics, neurophilosophy, neuropragmatics, neuroenhancing and, indeed, neurosecurity. This move is not primarily about neurotechnology; rather, it is about what we propose to call neurocosmology. It suggests that the brain is becoming a battlefield, not only for drugs, but also for ideas.
To exaggerate just a bit–those who define what the brain is also define who “we” are, who “you” are, and who “they” are. In this logic, it is not surprising that the notion of cultural neuroscience is opening up as a whole new field that is surely about brains, but also about forming and challenging particular understandings of personal, social, and cultural identities. For instance, the discussion of where in the brain the self is located has recently become an arena for challenging the Western notion of the “right” concept of personal and social identity.
Equally, how a soldier or the enemy are viewed and treated is likely to differ depending on whether they are thought of as moral persons with autonomy and responsibility or as emergent properties of behaviour in a vast assembly of neurons. These discussions, which are not primarily about technology, will have a major impact on how we and they discuss, conceptualize, and act out conflicts in the future. We agree with Moreno that framing these discussions in terms of “brains” may, at a basic level, be a problematic detour. However, to the extent that discussions of the fundamental nature of “the human” increasingly take place with reference to brains, it appears, unfortunately, rather unavoidable.