Mind control

| May / June 2006

The mere phrase gives us a jolt, in part because tales of switched brains, stolen brains, cyborg brains, and brains-in-vats have driven many of our favorite stories, novels, comics, TV shows, and movies. Whether we're reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or watching Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we're riveted by characters whose heads have been literally messed with.

The concept is no longer just fodder for cinematic or literary intrigue. Scientists harbor great hope for the future of brain manipulation, and have already made strides toward helping people with head injuries, mental illness, and neurological diseases such as Parkinson's. In the race for cures, the neuroscience team is sprinting.

With all these attendant hopes and fears, it's no wonder that advances in brain science have fueled both excitement and anxiety, as well as heated debate. For every new application, there are both rosy and alarming scenarios.

The technology also raises deeper, more ephemeral questions concerning spirit and the self. Is our soul more than a mass of neurons? Can a scientist completely understand what's happening when a monk is meditating or trace the source of existential angst? Can -- or should -- medicine help us raise our consciousness?

There's no stopping science. Smart people in lab coats will keep trying to understand the brain and find new ways to alter, enhance, and heal it. As they work toward their goal, though, we all ought to be thinking about how their knowledge should be applied, with an eye toward the modern concepts of selfhood and individual rights. In short, we should be using our brains. -- The Editors