Author: Craig Bearison
Scientific innovation over the past few decades has resulted in the development of technology that allows scientists to visualize the physical brain in action for the first time. Such technology, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), has become extremely popular in mainstream society because it in many ways demystifies the abstraction of the human mind and why we are who we are. There is something compelling about seeing the brain in action. However, the general public misunderstands the current ability of neuroscience to analyze the mind. The neuroscience community and the media are both responsible for the transmission of misleading information and the lack of effective communication about the limitations currently in neuroscience. These agencies and the public must improve the transmission of neuroscience knowledge, as the application of neuroscience in society to access the minds of individuals for various purposes will only increase in the future. Neuroscience is allowing humanity to probe the brain, read the mind, and make conclusions about people’s behavior for the first time. Spurred by widespread interest in society, this technology will continue to grow until humans are truly able to access the mind and manipulate behavior. Science fiction provides many examples of the trajectory neuroscience technologies might take and speculates about what these technologies will mean for society. At the same time, the science fiction forces readers to think about where we currently are with neuroscience.
Reading the fMRI
Before looking at how science fiction proposes to advance neuroscience and the impact it will have on humanity, it is important to understand the current technology and its limitations. The most exciting development in brain imaging technology over the past few decades that has sparked the hope that we will soon be able to access the mind is the creation of the fMRI procedure. In the fMRI protocol, test subjects lie down inside of a large cylindrical MRI machine and remain still as their brain is scanned. Depending on the individual aim of the experiment, the subject will have to complete some sort of mental task while inside the machine, often involving tasks on a monitor directly above them inside the machine. fMRI is a neuroimaging technique that measures brain activity by recording changes in blood flow throughout the brain. Areas of the brain that are more active require more energy and, consequently, use up more oxygen. Oxygen is transported to neurons by the carrier hemoglobin in the blood. Therefore, an increase in neuronal activity will result in an increase in blood flow to that area to deliver more sugar and energy, known as the hemodynamic response. fMRI takes advantage of the fact that oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin have different magnetic susceptibility to record which areas are receiving more blood and consuming more oxygen. Essentially, fMRI is recording the amount of overall activity in different brain regions.
Interpretation of data from an fMRI scan is dependent on comparisons to baseline levels of activity. Neural networks are not simply ‘off’ when not explicitly in use and ‘on’ when their function is needed. There is constantly background or random excitation occurring throughout the brain. This activity creates a lot of statistical noise when attempting to interpret the data from an fMRI. Subjects in an fMRI study must first have the machine calibrated for them so that the change in activity can be assessed. The challenge becomes establishing what constitutes a significant change in activity. The alteration in blood flow at a particular location is commonly sorted into a category signified by a particular color. The data from a study is displayed as some sort of image of the brain with differently colored regions to show where activity changed and by how much. Given the discrete, categorical nature of colors as a means of displaying differences, the thresholds chosen to separate each category are crucial to the how the results are interpreted. Different cut-offs could lead to different conclusions about whether or not there was a change in brain activity in response to the stimulus. The scientists themselves have a lot of control over how their results are interpreted by the choices they make in presenting the data.
Since the early 1990s, the usage of fMRI in research studies and its popularity in mainstream society have increased tremendously. One major reason for this growth is that the visual representation afforded by fMRI makes the data both easier to understand and more aesthetically pleasing. “Brain images may be more persuasive than other representations of brain activity because they provide a tangible physical explanation for cognitive processes that is easily interpreted as such” (McCabe & Castel 349). This reasoning is supported by the intuitive notion that the mind is an extension of the brain. People tend to think of abstract cognitive functions as being grounded in particular physical loci within the brain. fMRI plays into this conception by using attractive images of brains with highlighted areas to tie a particular function to an actual location in the brain. The images reinforce the notion that a particular cognitive process can be tied to a definitive location in the brain and that these regions can be measured to assess when the given process is in action. The media has claimed that operations such as love, belief in God, and lying have all been localized within the brain (McCabe & Castel 344). There is a tendency by the layman to look at brain images and directly interpret them as revealing an individual’s mental function.
Localizing a neurological function to an area or pathway in the brain lends itself to then attributing behaviors and characteristics to activity in particular brain regions. Brain scans display regions of increased activity that are correlated to specific functions and, in turn, related to particular behaviors. Under these assumptions, data from brain scans can be analyzed to reveal people’s thoughts, emotions, and even make conclusions about their nature. Essentially, fMRI and other brain scanning techniques are equating personal identity with the brain. The brain is a map that can be analyzed to decode the person and the self (Racine, Bar-Ilan, & Illes 3). As a consequence of using colors to represent activity levels, brain imaging creates the idea that there are discrete amounts of activity that reveal different types of brains. Given the linkage of the physical brain to mind, brain imaging also establishes that there are different kinds of people, identifiable by a certain category of brain architecture and activity (Dumit 36). However, just like all humans have differences in the structures of their face and other physical body parts, there are natural slight variations in brain structure and function that make standardization difficult. As such, the fMRI images displayed in studies are average brain responses and not the actual activation of one person’s brain, as they are interpreted as by the uninformed viewer.
The problem with thinking of fMRI and related technologies as showing us the brain and allowing us to read the mind is that they are just a statistical and graphical construct of average results from many different people. Brain images are in fact computer-generated maps in which a choice is made to visualize the data as different colors (Dumit 40-41). While brain images appear to provide people with a direct measurement of the physical substrate of cognitive processes, they are actually just measuring changes in oxygenation of blood in various brain regions (McCabe & Castel 350). The portrayal of fMRI investigations in the media is perpetuating the belief that fMRI enables us to capture ‘visual proof’ of brain activity and that they are real or objective (Racine, Bar-Ilan, & Illes 3). There is something deeply compelling about ‘seeing’ the mind at work that leads people to misunderstand what they can reasonably conclude from an fMRI image (Lombrozo). “The media, critical funding decisions, precious column inches, tenure posts, science credibility and the popular imagination have all been influenced by fMRI’s seductive but deceptive grasp on our attentions” (Bloom). When employed correctly, fMRI can be a very informative tool in scientific experiments for learning more about how brains tend to respond in particular controlled conditions. However, the usage of fMRI has extended beyond research studies to real world application, where brain imaging is being employed to make conclusions about people’s minds. Brain imaging techniques can be dangerous because they are so readily accepted in society, creating false ideas about what we actually in an fMRI image.
Deception of fMRI
This video demonstrates that fMRI images perpetuate the belief that there are distinct, discrete types of brains. In the first fMRI images shown, there is a small region illuminated in bright red with the rest of the brain neutral while the word ‘Yes’ appears over it, also in red. The juxtaposed image shows different areas illuminated in bright blue while the word ‘No’ appears over it, also in blue. This gives the impression that brains have a particular affirmative state and a different, discrete denial state when responding to a question. The video also points out the highly technical and complicated nature of brain imaging studies despite their sleek presentation. Additionally, the video demonstrates how, by virtue of color and threshold choices, the researchers are able to create a desired impression out of their data. A particular example is included at the end of the video of a study analyzing the effects of methamphetamine on the brain. Most fMRI images are only colored in the particular region of interest and the rest of the brain is kept a muted gray. However, in this particular study, the researchers colored the entire brain with very bright, contrasting colors to represent changes in activity. Any actual findings aside, the choice alone to color the entire brain is enough to make the ‘brain on drugs’ appear chaotic and damaged to the lay viewer. Taking the very scientific and serious fMRI images and turning them into a funny art piece serves as a critique against them for their inherent shortcoming and capacity for manipulation.
With fMRI as the current leading neuroscientific tool, there are many remaining obstacles in reaching the point where we can read the mind and manipulate behavior. Two of the major impediments are discovering the precise relationship between physical brain, mind, and behavior and accounting for individual variations in brain composition. Another big concern is once this technology is available, how will it be implemented in society and at what cost? Concerns about how neuroscience will be utilized and interpreted by society in the future seem all the more pressing given that the public is already misunderstanding neuroscience. Despite the shortcomings of fMRI and the acknowledgement that they are being largely misunderstood by society, they have nonetheless already been thrust into situations with real stakes on the line. Science fiction provides a lens for understanding how these applications might be expanded in the future and contextualizes the unease surrounding their implementation in society. Perhaps surprisingly, science fiction has also provided ideas about how the technical problems with the technology can be resolved as well.
Scientific Fantasy and Augmented Reality of Accessing the Mind
Given the presumptions about fMRI essentially being able to read people’s minds, there naturally seems to be a place for brain imaging in criminal justice and the legal system. In agreement with the overall excitement for fMRI in society, there is a lot of pressure by the public and industry to develop more applications. Multiple US companies are already selling deception detection devices utilizing fMRI that are intended to eventually replace the traditional polygraph test for determining when someone is lying. The physical brain is being invaded by technology to uncover the thoughts and behaviors of individuals. fMRI was utilized in a court case for the first time in 2009 for convicted murderer Brian Dugan, now accused of a new murder. Kent Kiehl testified on behalf of Dugan during the sentencing part of the trial to argue against the death penalty. Kiehl, using fMRI, explained that Dugan had reduced activity in certain areas of his brain characteristic of psychopaths, meaning he could not control his killer impulse (Hughes 340-341).
In response to Kiehl’s testimony, the prosecution called psychiatrist Jonathan Brodie to the stand. One point raised by Brodie is that of course Dugan would have the brain of a murderer after he committed a murder, but it is now impossible to know what his brain looked like at the time of the crime (Hughes 340-341. By this, Brodie means that it is misleading to judge the motives for Dugan’s actions now on the basis of brain predispositions because there is no way of knowing what he was thinking when he murdered the girl. The physical brain can certainly vary over time and if somebody has a marker for a trait, there is no way of concluding how or when it is actually influencing his or her behavior. This point is representative of a larger concern with brain imaging, the idea of determining culpability or likelihood to commit a crime based on brain pathology. As Stephen Morse of the University of Pennsylvania stated, “Brains don’t kill people. People kill people” (Hughes 342). However, if certain tissue is missing or there is a defect in a particular pathway, this can explain certain abnormal behaviors. To how much extent the physical brain should be held responsible for a crime is something yet to be decided by scientists and the law. Again, this calls to attention the danger in leaping from depictions of the physical brain to making conclusions about behavior. The problem lies in determining to what extent we can relate specific brain activation to actual human behavior, how to reconcile individual differences into assessment, and finally how this information can and should be used in practice in society.
The idea of utilizing information about someone’s likeliness to commit a crime to, in some way, condemn them has often been explored in science fiction stories in the form of pre-crime and detection agencies. The prediction of future crime with futuristic technology is the plot of the popular 2002 blockbuster Minority Report based on the 1956 short story The Minority Report. In the film, there is a PreCrime police force in Washington DC that stops murders before they happen by arresting the individuals who are going to commit the crimes in the future. As a result, the city has been murder free for six years. The method for detection in the film is, however, not based on brain scanning. Rather, mutated human ‘precogs’ who generate visions of the future are employed to provide police with the information. Nonetheless, the film provides a blueprint for how a PreCrime force could operate in the future and exposes many of the problems surrounding detection, regardless of the method. One of the main themes in the film is free will versus determinism. Given that the film involves visions of the future, the iteration of this debate in the film is if the future is already set or if human free will can alter it. Related to brain scanning, the issue becomes if people are bound to behave in accordance with the profile of their physical brain or if people have the free will to overcome supposed predispositions.
Arguing that a man should be spared the death penalty because of a preexisting abnormality that proves he did not have ill intent is still a long way from synthesizing this information to predict future behavior. However, early research into what brain activity could be used as predictors for particular behaviors is already underway using fMRI. The same Kiehl who testified in the Dugan murder trial has also found that prisoners with lower anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) activity are about twice as likely to commit another crime upon release as criminals with higher ACC activity (Haederle). This type of information could one day be used to help design treatment and rehabilitation for criminals. For example, a controversial situation is if criminals, like sex offenders, should be detained indefinitely if their brain reveals a statistical likelihood to reoffend. Unlike using fMRI in diagnosing individuals with psychological disorders in the courtroom, when it comes to diagnosis for the purpose of predicting future actions, Kiehl is much more cautious. In this scenario, Kiehl himself brought up the problem of individual variation by warning that the study presented average test results from a large group and cannot yet be used to predict individual behavior.
The leap from simply diagnosing mental state by looking at the brain to adopting this information to condemn individuals for potential future actions does not seem that great considering how knowledge of mental conditions is currently used in law. The legal system already analyzes criminal’s behavior to predict whether they pose an ongoing risk to society when it comes to making decisions about granting parole. Criminals have a psychological evaluation done by a psychiatrist before they are approved for parole. With brain imaging techniques becoming increasingly accepted in society, it is not hard to imagine switching from a psychiatrist who strictly analyzes behavioral trends to a neuroscientist who infers behavior from analyzing the brain. The next question becomes to what extent people should be held accountable for what their brain reveals. There is already a precedent for assessing likelihood of criminals to recommit in determining how much longer they should be detained so including physical biology into the equation does not seem so farfetched. The tougher situation is the one posed by Minority Report, scanning the general population of people who have not committed crimes before and have not explicitly consented to having their minds invaded. In order to limit this technology to reasonable applications supported by the science and understood properly by lay people, better communication of neuroscientific information in society is needed.
Looking at a person’s brain in order to understand their mental faculties for the sake making conclusions about them as a person lends itself to the idea that actively changing the physical brain can manipulate who somebody is or what they are experiencing. If the legal system is going to utilize predispositions or abnormalities in brain function to explain particular behaviors, it stands to reason that modifying these underlying causes could factor into the rehabilitation strategy. Attempting to correct a deviant behavior attributed to committing a crime by altering a supposed physical basis is already under consideration. Many governments in recent years have considered measures to chemically castrate sex offenders in order to curb the sexual desires that landed them in trouble. As applied neuroscience becomes increasingly accepted in society, it is not difficult to envision a future in which criminals’ brains are lesioned to alter abnormal behavior.
Although not related to the criminal justice or legal system, Rick Moss’s 2010 novel Ebocloud addresses how brain manipulation and the dissemination of neuroscientific information could work in the future. In the novel, the brain is accessed to induce feelings, emotions, and thoughts inside people with a utopian goal in mind. Ebocloud posits a potential future in which this sort of technology is incorporated into a social network to enhance the experience of engaging in the network. The social network, the eponymous Ebocloud, involves creating close-knit groups of people, known as tribes, for the purpose of working as a community to build a better planet. To accomplish this, an incentive system called kar-merits is used to promote good deeds and community service. In the time period of the novel, the network is in the process of developing technology to integrate the brain into the network in a way that enhances the group experience and facilitates getting involved in service in accordance with their mission.
In the novel, Ebocloud founder Radu Cajal hires neurocybernetics expert Dr. Ernesto Kim to develop a brain-computer-interface (BCI). Such a device is used to hook up individual users’ brains to a cloud computer via a digital tattoo, known as a dToos. The dToo BCI system allows ebo cousins to experience each other’s thoughts and emotions. The cloud serves the immediate purpose of improving the mechanism for matching cousins with group activities but it is more than just a faster medium for information exchange. Cajal describes the sharing of thoughts and emotions via the cloud as the creation of a new language. The cloud is a new sensory organ for humans that can interpret distinct new feelings. On top of transferring people’s thoughts and feelings on to other people, the dToos also simultaneously share their perspectives, virtues, and other abstract concepts with the entire group to create a group consciousness. The process works by capturing the physical data behind a mental process and then utilizing neurotransmitter release and electrical stimulation in the ebo cousins to replicate the experience. The physical brain is manipulated to influence the mind and ultimately alter behavior, in this case toward a more altruistic and loving society.
In developing a dToo network that can successfully manipulate the brain, Dr. Kim also successfully addresses and tackles the dilemma of individual variations in brain composition. Currently with fMRI, innate individual variations in brain behavior make it difficult to interpret one person’s brain response because the reference is an average tendency. Everybody has a unique brain so it is extremely difficult and dangerous to manipulate the brain of an individual based on the average condition. In Ebocloud, the dToos do not administer neurotransmitters or electrical impulses to induce a feeling based on where that feeling is generated in a standardized brain. Rather, each person has his or her unique brain charted so that this map, rather than a standardized brain, is used later on to integrate the brain into the cloud. To map the brain, individual ebo cousins are hooked into the BCI and then undergo a regimen of tasks (Moss 234). Essentially, when a person sets up their dToo, the machine is calibrated for their unique brain structure and activity patterns by running the person through a number of sample tasks related to social interactions.
The novel also addresses how the public and media respond to the introduction of the BCI system and in turn how Ebocloud deals with the reaction and educates society about the technology. With this, Moss elucidates the kind of exchange that is needed between scientists and the public in the future in order for neurotechnology to be implemented successfully and ethically. In the novel, the dToo system leaks to the general public two weeks before the official launch and all of the major news outlets immediately devote full coverage to it. The scientific community was largely excited about the technology and the opportunities it opened for continued scientific progress. The mainstream media, however, jumped to sensationalism and ‘misconstrued technobable’ on both sides. The right forewarned of the coming apocalypse and the left began dreaming of ‘utopian slop’ (Moss 285-286). Initially, Cajal refused to give a press conference and forbade his employees from talking to the media. The only method of information distribution by Ebocloud was video tutorials, FAQs, and technical documents posted on the web and in the cloud. The misconstrued information from the mainstream media was the primary source of information for the public about this new neurotechnology, similar to how neuroscience information is currently disseminated in society.
The relationship between the public and the brain imaging community is already complicated and full of misunderstandings on both ends. The current method of communication is a one-way system in which neuroscientists rely on traditional media sources to disseminate results (Racine, Bar-Ilan, & Illes 7-8). This is how Ebocloud initially handled the release of the dToo network. This system is not conducive to the necessary public dialogue, proper media contextualization of results, or responsibility of scientists to serve the interests of humanity. The safe and effective implementation of brain scanning technology in mainstream society will require improved communication from both parties to elucidate the current abilities of the technology to the populace and, in turn, society’s expectations, desires, and concerns. A multidirectional communication system supported by open debate between the media, public, neuroscience community, and social sciences would be a better method of information exchange (Racine, Bar-Ilan, & Illes 7-8). Such a system would support proactive solutions to these growing concerns and thereby help guide new research and its practical implementation.
Ebocloud acknowledges the weakness of the one-dimensional system and demonstrates how neuroscientists and companies on the industry side of neuroscience could better communicate information in the future. Once Cajal realizes the extent of misinformation about the BCI in society, he decides to give one interview. Rather than appear on live television with a mainstream media personality or host, he chooses to conduct the interview with a tech gadget blogger via email. By selecting someone comfortable with the tech space, Cajal ensures that the conversation will be focused on relevant facts rather than political spin. Additionally, conducting the interview by email allows him to ensure that he is explaining everything fully and in the way he wants. In the interview, Cajal explains how the dToos work from the neuroscience and computing side, why he created it, what it will mean for society, and he rebuts the concerns surrounding the technology. The interview immediately became the media event of the month. Afterwards, the excitement for dToos continued to grow and bordered on pandemonium. Ebocloud demonstrates the kind of open and meaningful public conversation between the media and scientists that will aid in the proper advancement of neuroscience.
Society is very excited about the potential applications of accessing the human mind. However, we are not as close to possessing this power as many people might believe due to the particular seduction of fMRI imaging and the current ineffective communication of neuroscientific knowledge in society. Science fiction not only allows us to envision what a neuro-driven future might look like, but is also a valuable analytical tool for understanding where we are now and how we can fix current problems to help us get there. Two large impediments currently in the way of being able to access the mind are understanding the relationship between physical brain, mind, and behavior and accounting for individual variations in brain composition. Work is currently being done both in laboratories and in the public sphere to work out these issues. For example, researchers and the legal system are trying to determine how brain biology affects the future behaviors of individuals. Along with the technical side of these technologies are the equally as important ethical and societal dilemmas regarding how far humans should go in accessing the mind. The stories of Minority Report and Ebocloud both force us to evaluate how we are already using neuroscience and how we can effectively and safely implement it in the future.
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