A Brief Primer on the Perils of Neuroscience
Genetics may yet threaten privacy, kill autonomy, make society homogenous and gut the concept of human nature. But neuroscience could do all of these things first.
—The Economist, May 23, 2002
This is your brain, as seen by you: that familiar seat of ideas, notions, images, and dreams—the locus of your ordinary sense of self.
This is your brain, as seen by someone with common sense: the physical location of intuition, reason, imagination, and will.
This is your brain, according to the US constitution: the sacrosanct site of thought and choice—the inviolable domain for the personal discovery of truth and the private pursuit of happiness.
And this is your brain in the hands of all-too-many neuroscientists: the proximate cause of all human behavior; a nexus for conducting warfare; a target for “mind control” in times of political turmoil; and a bull’s eye for manipulation by big media, big business, and Big Pharma.
Hidden dangers lurk among the otherwise exciting advances in neuroscience, and these perils may grow without a broader awareness of its social and political implications.
But efforts along this line are tardy: “While genetics has spawned a robust watchdog industry, neuroscience has received far less scrutiny,” write the authors of a major review article in The Nation. “The latest developments in neuroscience are sufficiently unique to require a rethinking of both personal and social ethics.”1 An editorial in Scientific American quipped: “The list of moral and social issues attached to neurotechnologies is long enough to position ethicists…on a list of hot jobs that appears in the U.S. News and World Report annual career guide.” 2
In 1990 President George H.W. Bush had declared the nineties to be “The Decade of the Brain.” And yet, until only a few years ago, the National Institute of Mental Health had established no budget for the study of neuroethics, and few universities had pursued the subject. The discipline’s true inauguration may been in 2002 when Stanford University cosponsored a pioneering conference with the Dana Institute. 3 A large increase in academic papers followed, and the Neuroethics Society was established in 2006.
But more is needed than mere academic debate within the paradigm of mainstream science. Keeping powerful new neurotechnologies out of the wrong hands will, first of all, require careful journalistic scrutiny. The increased public awareness will hopefully lead to improved democratic oversight, especially of the far-reaching military and law enforcement applications of neurotechnology noted later in this article. But just as important will be the pursuit of a more holistic model of the brain and its relationship to consciousness and the mind.
Gaining Knowledge of the Brain, Did We Lose Our Soul?
We might also add: This is your brain, according to consciousness studies as
informed by the world’s wisdom traditions:
The physical vehicle of the mysterious endowments of consciousness and
cognition, and the temporary biological partner of each person’s uniqueness andcreativity. Mind can be seen as a rarefied form of energy quite apart from the electrochemical exchanges that drive the brain, yet able interface with them on behalf of higher functions of the personality.4
Descartes once thought that the pineal gland was the seat of the soul, a notion that neuroscientists today may find rather quaint. But a scan of the vast literature of neuroscience reveals that the field has swung to the opposite extreme, dispensing with any mention of the soul and rarely referring to the independent existence of the mind or psyche. It is in fact de riguer among the majority of neuroscientists to believe that the
brain is the mind. And someday, no doubt, we will think this belief to be quaint.5
To its credit, current science has shown that the pineal gland probably produces DMT, a chemical agent linked to mystical states. A division of neuroscience research has accumulated evidence that that the brain is somehow “wired” for “God experience.”
Brain scientists have even researched the Tantric Yoga teaching that the nervous system contains the potential of kundalini, said to be the seed and secret of evolution of higher consciousness.
But mainstream science, as it is at present, was born through a violent break with such metaphysical visions of human potential and God-given faculties.6 The wellmeaning quest for scientific objectivity has turned the human subject into an object.
Radical reductionism applied to neuroscience became a pretext for denying the very reality of human consciousness, and for the “death of the subject.”7
Here Come the Neuro-Machines
Of course, the science of the brain moves on regardless, driven by government funding and profitable applications. Today’s practical uses of neuroscience can be roughly divided into technologies that seek to map the brain, and those that seek to alter it. For a century or more, brain research had been hamstrung by ethical restraints on experimenting with living human subjects. Not so in the last decade or so, when relatively non-invasive machines for measuring brain activity began to change all that. Among the most important is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which employs magnetic fields to monitor the rate of blood flow in the brain.
For example, an fMRI can illustrate how the amygdalas of depressed people
behave differently. (The amygdala is a center of emotion in the brain, especially as related to memories.) When read a list of words that convey sadness, the amygdalas of depressives showed more than three times the duration of blood-flow as their nondepressed counterparts. In other words, depressed folks ruminate on sadness, while the normals simply move on, having “done that.”8 Brain imaging can now be reliably linked to all manner of mental states and traits, and researchers are even examining higher processes such as learning, intending, and speaking.
Significantly, the brain locations for the cognitive difference between truth and lying are now well known. A proper scan can quickly reveal someone pretending to have impaired memories under police interrogation (or during an appearance before a Congressional committee); such scans are a distinct could improvement on today’s liedetector tests. Indeed, a new device developed by Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories, Inc. images the telltale involuntary electrical activity of the brain when a suspect is being shown images relating to a crime.9
Brain fingerprinting signals a new reign of scientific objectivity, but there’s
something morally wrenching about this turning over this kind of power. As Professor Jonathan D. Moreno puts it in his book Mind Wars: “Activity in a certain neural pathway cannot be deliberately controlled by a subject; thus, nonvoluntary disclosure is possible. In this respect, even physical coercion could be less invasive (although more frightening and injurious) than a valid fMRI scan.” 10
Along this royal road to what some now call the neurosociety, other scientists
have identified the neuro-correlates of traits like forgetfulness, empathy, extraversion, or aggression. Imaging that would reveal an aggressive tendency, for example, could help identify a better CEO or salesman or screen out employees likely to engage in violent acts.
One can imagine all sorts of useful applications like these, but one can expect that all sorts of disquieting issues will also arise:
How far should authority figures like police, psychiatrists, or judges be permitted to go in screening people’s brains?
And once in hand, who should have access to such data? College admissions
committees? Human resources departments? Health insurers? The FBI?
Where do the rights of corporations and the state begin, and our cognitive liberties end? Shall we permit brain scans to violate our Fifth Amendment right to against selfincrimination, and to gut our right to privacy?
The newest applications of the neuro-machines can now outsmart even the most sophisticated brains. From the brave new world of neuromarketing, we learn that the taste of Coke “lit up” a section of the frontal cortex that controls higher thinking in subjects, revealing that even though these consumers said they prefer Pepsi, their brain actually liked Coke.11 (The researcher concluded that they were unduly influenced by the effectiveness of the brand marketing of Pepsi.) Another researcher imaged brains of
voters before the 2004 election, learning that some held fast to a candidate against their brain’s own better judgment. The scans showed that they suppressed their own cognitive dissonance in the face of contrarian facts about their conscious preferences. 12
It is evident in such examples that brain scans screen out “subjectivity,” rendering real persons into less-than-human objects. But will such “objective measures” of who we are—as opposed to what we or our peers say we are—become the new standard of personal identity? Will “brain fingerprints” become the new markers of individuality, setting aside one’s own personally discovered claims of intimate personal facts? Will our children someday no longer dip deeply within their minds and hearts to discover who they are, but rather let scientists discover their real selves by “objective” means?
The peril rises when the stakes rise: When national security is threatened, or a large insurance payment is hanging in the balance, or a murder charge is being contested, who’s to deny authorities access to our brain states? If, after all, the brain really is the mind, wouldn’t it be better to go straight to the “facts”?
But then, what if future discoveries unveil just how complex and subtle our brains (and thus our minds) really are, with the result that previous interpretations of brains scans are shown to mean little better than Rorschach tests for the neuro-machines’ operators?
Alter the Brain — Leave the Rest the Same
What kind of privacy safeguards are needed if a machine can read your thoughts? Will cognition enhancers exacerbate differences between rich and poor? Or, instead, will they relegate social diversity to the status of historical artifact?
What happens if we deduce through neuroimaging the physiological basis for morality? Oh, and by the way, whathappens to free will?13
Bearing the above warning from an editorial in Scientific American in mind, let us now turn to the brain alteration aspect of neurotechnology. Here we find techniques suchas repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, (or rTMS), a non-invasive method of exciting neurons in the brain that shows promise for the treatment of mental disorders.14
Amazingly, treating depression with rTMS entails simply holding a magnetic coil over
someone’s skull in just the right place. (Be sure to calibrate properly!) The procedure is painless. In more severe cases, a direct insertion (into the same spot) of a neural implant also does the trick—and has been repeatedly shown to work.15
Quick and painless relief from a depression or a compulsive disorder has real
merit, but the social side-effects may also be profound. Prescription drugs like Prozac or Zoloft significantly change the score in the brain as well, but they do reserve some freedom for the patient: It all happens at the personal discretion of the pill popper. Not so once the psychiatrist or neurosurgeon is in charge of placing an implant or operating a neuro-machine. Especially not so if a neuroweapon is stealthily targeted at the brain from a distance, as we’ll soon examine.
The apparently beneficial interventions of neuroscience lay on one side; on the other is the subjective inner world of the patient, now being increasingly marginalized.
Yet another aspect, all too often ignored, are the untreated features of a sick social system. Indeed, a film like “Sicko” demonstrates how the system itself (in this case, the medical insurance system), and not the patient, may be producing the neurologically treatable condition in the first place.
Having been “cured” by rTMR sessions, what now happens to a person’s unique or even heroic story of struggle in the face of an arguably crazy society, one not of his own making? What about the unseen habiliments of the patient’s private world—in and through which they are evolving and growing? The inexorable “objectivity” of neurological treatments is exacerbating the current trend—already ingrained by pharmaceuticals like Ritalin and Prozac—toward rendering us into passive objects, and no longer conscious subjects, of our own healing and growth.
Other obvious ethical questions arise: Will neuro-interventions reduce the ways it is acceptable to be a person? If ordinary maladies like forgetfulness, aggression, or depression become optional traits, will people be more inclined to discriminate against the bearers of those traits? At first, only the wealthy will be able to afford such treatments; the dawning era of brain transformation will only increase the gap between rich and poor. 16
Modern brain science is changing the terms of the debate as to what it means to be human—the age-old questions of the nature of free will, the soul, and human nature. Yetanother front contributing its share to the debate is the new field of “neurolaw.” Criminal law traditionally requires that, to convict a suspect, evidence for commission of the crime must be linked to facts pointing to the specific mental (or brain) state of the suspect. This is known in legal parlance as mens rea—i.e., “the guilty mind.” Did the suspect act in self-defense, or under external coercion? Or did they do the deed of their own free will? Neuroscientific reductionism answers as follows: brain states cannot be controlled; on the contrary, they control us. Strictly speaking, there are no free will acts, thus there are no corrupted souls, and no guilty minds. Does this mean, then, that all behavior could potentially be excused. 17
From Cyborg to — Borg? Reformers speak out
Consider how far this could go: In a few decades, writes famed futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of Spiritual Machines, we should be able to digitally scan a blueprint of every axon, dendrite, and neuron we possess—to create a software-based facsimile of our brain. But who, then,
would be in control of this digitized rendition of the soul?
In Kurzweil’s vision, man and machine will have fused; cyborgs will become a reality. Kurzweil really means it: “Our immortality,” he says, “will be a matter of
being sufficiently careful to make frequent backups.”
In a more dystopian vein, the film Minority Report presents another stark image of where hyper-advanced neuroscience may take us. The movie is set in the year 2054, where genetically engineered telepaths who can see the future scan the population looking for citizens whose brains harbor imminent plans for murder. The telepaths then relay this information to “pre-crime cops” whose job it is to stop each murder before it happens. Meanwhile, on urban streets, people are constantly monitored to providereal-time brain scans and personal identity data to massive computers. Big business is linked to each brain fingerprint, enabling marketers to personalize animated public advertising displays for each individual as they pass by.
High-tech drugs and virtual reality machines provide escape for those who find this “new world order” intolerable.
Is this the direction in which we are headed? Human rights groups critical of the perils of the coming neurosociety are standing up for what is now being called cognitive liberty. For example, Mindfreedom (mindfreedom.org) is a coalition of groups from 14 countries speaking out against such practices as forced medication and neural implants. The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (cognitiveliberty.org) is a network of scholars focused on freedom of speech and thought, neurotechnology, “neuropolicy,” and the war on drugs.
Finally, Mind Justice (mindjustice.org) has emerged as the leading human rights group addressing the new weapons which target the mind and nervous system.
The Militarization of Neuroscience
While developments in brain research are touted for their amazing therapeutic advances in the medical field, they primarily serve the purposes of the US military. Americans have little idea about the research concerning the capabilities of electromagnetism, directed acoustics, or computer-human interfacing. The majority of Americans do not know that we are currently using these newconcept weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan.18
“The Decade of the Brain” signified to the covert world that federal funding for
neuroscience research would pour into the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). With this infusion, more than four decades of clandestine support for the weaponization of brain research reached its culmination in discoveries about how to create and deploy EM (electromagnetic) weapons targeted at the human nervous system.19
This is not the place to review the bizarre years of Cold War “mind control” research between the 1950s and 1970s that is epitomized by the CIA’s notorious MK-ULTRA program, an alleged attempt to narrow the gap against Russians’ sophisticated “psychtronics” research—all of which is now well documented. Suffice it to say that the new generation of neuroweapons is effective, and is ready for battle:
Item: Neuroscience-based EM weapons now being used in Iraq
According to reliable reports, GIs faced with restive Iraqi neighborhoods are sometimes directed to install hidden transmitters that saturate areas with “pacifying” or disorienting EM frequencies.20 For more targeted crowd control, less sophisticated weapons mounted on Humvees are now being used to beam microwaves that flash-burn exposed flesh.21
Item: Israelis Use Acoustic Weapon to Disorient Protesters
As reported by the Associated Press and in the Toronto Star, demonstrators in a West Bank village were subjected to periodic blasts of sound emanating from a white Israeli military vehicle, causing them to fall their knees, unable to maintain their balance. A professor of neurobiology at Israel’s Technion Institute likened the effect to sea-sickness:
“The combination of low frequencies at high intensities can create discrepancies in the inputs to the brain.” 22 A variety of such exotic weapons were also widely reported to have been used by the Israelis in 2006 Lebonon war. 23
Item at CNN.com: “Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs”
Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne states that “nonlethal weapons should be tested on U.S. civilians before being used on the battlefield,” referring to the use of EM weapons in crowd-control situations. “The object is basically public relations,” said Wynne.
“Domestic use would make it easier to avoid questions from others about possible safety considerations.” 24
Item: Hundreds of Americans claim to have been targeted by EM weapons
Multiple sources have indicated that many Americans, often times activists engaged in movements for social change, believe they have been targeted by EM weapons in campaigns of either illegal experimentation or outright persecution. These documemted experiences involved discrete phenomena, including:
• Feeling sensations of burning, itching, tickling, or pressure with no apparent physical cause.
• Sleeplessness, disorientation, and anxiety as a result of “humming” or “buzzing.” 25
Department of Defense spending on this category of technology, generically known as directed-energy weapons (DEWs), has reached a half of a billion dollars a year, according to former Pentagon analyst William Arkin, now with the Washington Post.26
Although rarely reported to Americans, the field is large and growing—and this dollar estimate does not cover “black budget” programs. Indeed, DEWs are now a routine part of the defense establishment. The website for a recent trade show held near the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, touted the show’s “unparalleled speaker faculty” and its dozens of displays of the newest technologies. A new book entitled The E-Bomb, by J. Douglas Beason, states that directed energy will “revolutionize warfare.” 27
Painstaking efforts in recent years at forcing public disclosure has revealed that, according to researcher Dr. Nick Begich, executive director of The Lay Institute on
Technology, Inc. in Dallas, “the new weapons that are unlike anything ever contemplated by mankind. These are weapon systems which pierce the very integrity of the human being…[and] are frightening in their implications.” 28 Begich’s important research uncovered such statements as these, typical of recent military literature:
One can envision the development of electromagnetic energy sources, the output of which can be pulsed, shaped, and focused, that can couple with the human body in a fashion that will allow one to prevent voluntary muscular movements, control emotions
(and thus actions), produce sleep, transmit suggestions, interfere with both short-term and long-term memory, produce an experience set, and delete an experience set. 29
Revelations like this, and this brief review of the other perils of neuroscience, may make neurotechnology appear to be the captive of today’s materialistic, warlike, profit-driven culture. But in truth the hubris of some neuroscientists and their sponsors will be seen to merely represent one passing phase in the evolution of consciousness. Ironically, the “upside” ability of neuroscience to support the enhancement of human potentials contains the seeds for liberating us from the dangers reviewed in this essay.
Democratic oversight at the national and global level will be crucial in this transition, but replacing brain-science reductionism with an expanded, holistic picture of human consciousness may well be the most critical factor.
Byron Belitsos is an author, journalist, and activist. He is most recently the coauthor of One World Democracy: A Progressive Vision for Enforceable Global Law (Origin Press: 2005). He can be reached at
1. Kathryn Schulz, “Brainstorming: As neuroscience advances beyond imagination, hope intensifies and dilemmas deepen,” The Nation (Jan. 9, 2006).
2. “A Vote for Neuroethics,” ScientificAmerican.com (August 11, 2003).
3. The proceedings were compiled and edited by Steven J. Marcus in Neuroethics: Mapping The Field, (Dana Press, September 2004).
4. The wisdom traditions might also add that the brain is locus of your soul or essential self, which enfolds the thinking mind, which in turn enfolds the brain. Accordingly, the mind manages input from and provides output to the brain and nervous system, in which it is “hierarchically nested.” The soul, on the other hand, is pure spirit (or is mysteriously derived from a spirit source); and functionally speaking, the soul is the organ that senses values and confers on us the power to freely choose from among them, having consulted the thinking mind. According to some traditions, the soul also harvests the results of your moral decisions. This account follows the writings of Arthur Koestler and Ken Wilber, especially Wilber’s Integral Psychology, (Shambhala, 2002).
5. The mechanist materialism of some of today’s neuroscientists will be seen as puerile and altogether unworthy of an advancing order of society. Wisdom and mature life experience point to certain irreducible elements of what it means to be human: the free-will desire to love and serve, and the experience of the urge to evolve the soul, know the truth, and become truly free. Such insights will one day become lingua
franca for enlightened neuroscientists.
6. Modern science was founded on the idea of a radical disjunction between the observer and “external” reality, which was now assumed to be completely independent from the observer. This break allowed science to develop independently of theology, politics, history, culture, and art, i.e., the humane discipline that are built upon the commonsense reality of the interdependence of subject and object, and their ultimate philosophic unity “Objectivity” was now set up as the supreme criterion of truth, thereby leading to one inevitable consequence: the transformation of the human subject into an object. Such a procedure may work when the object of study is an asteroid, an ameba, or the nature of electricity, but it gets dangerous when the human brain is the target of measurement. See Basarab Nicolescu, “Transdisciplinarity as Methodological Framework for Going Beyond the Science-Religion Debate,” Global Spiral (June 2007) http://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/10013/Default.aspx
7. The death of subject is the price we pay for “objective knowledge.” Free will is an illusion and the struggles and joys of life are an absurdity if mental decisions are purely the consequence of electrochemical interactions in the brain.
8. “Open your mind: The ethics of brain science,” The Economist (May 23, 2002).
9. Becky McCall, “Brain fingerprints under scrutiny,” BBC News (February 17, 2004). “It is highly
scientific,” says chief scientist Dr Farwell. “Brain fingerprinting doesn’t have anything to do with the emotions, whether a person is sweating or not; it simply detects scientifically if that information is stored in the brain.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3495433.stm
10. Jonathan D. Moreno, Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense (Dana Press, 2005), p. 112.
11. Mary Carmichael, “Neuromarketing: is it coming to a lab near you?” PBS.org/PBS Frontline (May 17, 2007).
12. Michael Shermer, “The Political Brain: A recent brain-imaging study shows that our political predilections are a product of unconscious confirmation bias,” ScientificAmerican.com (July 2006).
13. “A Vote for Neuroethics,” ScientificAmerican.com (August 11, 2003).
14. The excitation is caused by weak electric currents induced in the tissue by rapidly changing magnetic fields (through “electromagnetic induction”). This way, brain activity can be triggered or modulated without the need for surgery or electrodes. Nerve cells use electrical signals to send information, and magnetic fields can either induce or disrupt such signals.
15. Lauren Slater, “Who Holds the Clicker?” Mother Jones (November/December 2005).
16. “Open your mind: The ethics of brain science,” The Economist (May 23, 2002).
17. See especially Jeffrey Rosen, “The Brain on the Stand, “ New York Times Magazine (March 11, 2007).
18. Peter Phillips, Lew Brown and Bridget Thornton,“US Electromagnetic Weapons and Human Rights:
A Study of the History of US Intelligence Community Human Rights Violations and Continuing Research in Electromagnetic Weapons,” December 2006, Sonoma State University/Project Censored/Media Freedom Foundation, p. 26.
19. This history, and the many phases in the evolution of modern EM weaponry, is well documented by Dr. Nick Begich in Controlling the Human Mind: The Technologies of Political Control or Tools for Peak
Performance, (Earthpulse Press, August 2006). See also: www.mindjustice.org, which documents the entire field, including Russian research and international efforts aimed at controlling or outlawing electromagnetic weapons.
20. William Thomas, Convergence Weekly, January 1, 2005, “Microwaving Iraq: “Pacifying Rays Pose New Hazards to Iraqis,” http://www.willthomas.net/Convergence/Weekly/Microwaving_Iraq.htm
21. Amy Goodman, “Star Wars in Iraq.” Radio/TV program broadcast by Democracy Now! on July 25th,
2006. http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/07/25/1442252. See also Steven Komarow, USA
Today, “Pentagon deploys array of non-lethal weapons,” (July 24, 2005).
22. “Israelis Unleash Scream at Protest,” Toronto Star (June 6, 2006)
23. Prof. Paola Manduca, “New and unknown deadly weapons used by Israeli forces,” Global Research (August 7, 2006).
24. CNN.com, September 13th, 2006. See:
25. This list of symptoms was compiled from material available on the website of Californians Against Human Rights Abuses (CAHRA) and can be found at www.mindjustice.org. Peter Phillips, Lew Brown and Bridget Thornton, aforementioned authors of “US Electromagnetic Weapons and Human Rights,” stat that they have conducted interviews with seven individuals who wish to have their identities protected and who presented anecdotal and physical evidence to support their assertions. The author of this article has conducted interviews with close to a dozen such alleged victims.
26. Stated in an interview with Amy Goodman, “Star Wars in Iraq.” Radio/TV program broadcast by Democracy Now! on July 25th, 2006. http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/07/25/1442252
27. See Leonard David, “Beam Weapons almost ready for battle: directed energy could revolutionize warfare, expert says,” (January 14, 2006) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10805240/
28. Begich, p. 29.
29. “New World Vistas,” United States Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, Ancillary Volume, 1996, p. 89.