May 27, 2008

Science and Environment

A Penny for Your Thoughts

Dan Cloer

The going rate for a “thought”—a probe into the thinking of another—was once quite a bargain. Today, more than four centuries since the phrase “A penny for your thoughts?” was first recorded, inflationary accounting makes that ancient penny worth more than $40. Even with the sliding value of the dollar, this still seems quite the bargain. Of course, times haven’t changed much in one sense, considering the buyer still can’t be sure of the veracity of his purchase. 

How much would you pay to know what thoughts are swimming around in someone else’s head? And if you could really know their truthfulness how much more would you pay? 

Such fantastical questions have long been the bread and butter of fiction. From the Twilight Zone to Minority Report, the idea of reading minds—of seeing the private intentions of another, and the possibility of intervening in those plans—has always been highly attractive. 

Not long ago science was satisfied with outlining the areas of the brain responsible for various functions and the processing of sensations: frontal lobe for “higher thought,” optic lobe for vision, etc. Not so today. As Martha J. Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, puts it, “For the first time it may be possible to breach the privacy of the human mind, and judge people not only by their actions, but also by their thoughts and predilections” (See “Are We in Need of a Neuromorality”)

Penalizing and controlling those once private thoughts may eventually become de rigueur. Science fiction writer Michael Crichton imagined more than 35 years ago that understanding the neural origin of our thoughts and motivations will water the seeds of our desire to intervene. At first interventions will be for medical reasons, to control seizures and epileptic “brainstorms” that incapacitate their victims. In Terminal Man (1972), Crichton presaged this concept as a computerthat will monitor electrical activity of the brain, and when it sees an attack starting, will transmit a shock to the correct brain area. This computer is about the size of a postage stamp and weighs a tenth of an ounce. It will be implanted in the skin of the patient’s neck.” 

In Crichton’s story, Benson, a brain-damaged accident victim, suffers blackouts during which he becomes violently psychotic. Certainly this seems a humanitarian reason to intervene, but it evolves into the sort of “could we, should we” question that is the foundation of many of Crichton’s novels. The conclusion is not surprising. The feedback loop between computer and brain becomes positive rather than negative. The stimulus pathway that was meant to negate the deviant thoughts becomes the pathway to encourage those actions. The sensation created within Benson’s brain becomes pleasurable; more violence is fed with more pleasure. 

“It feels so good,” Benson said, still smiling. “That feeling, it feels so good. Nothing feels as good as that. I could just swim in that feeling forever and ever.” 

In electronically countering Benson’s seizure, the computer’s input has been reinterpreted as a positive; a good feeling is perceived. This experience drives the seizure forward and, as the story continues, drives Benson to greater and more frequent bouts of violence. His brain molds itself to the new conditions created by the computer’s sensory input. 

In a no longer unusual case of fiction becoming fact, Crichton was writing of neural plasticity 35 years ago. With penetrating insight he mused: 

Our brains were the sum total of past experiences—long after the experiences were gone. That meant that cause and cure weren’t the same thing. . . . As the Development people said, “A match may start a fire, but once the fire is burning, putting out the match won’t stop it. The problem is no longer the match. It’s the fire.” 

As for Benson, he had had more than twenty-four hours of intense stimulation by his implanted computer. That stimulation had affected his brain by providing new experiences and new expectations. A new environment was being incorporated. Pretty soon, it would be impossible to predict how the brain would react. Because it wasn’t Benson’s old brain anymore—it was a new brain, the product of new experiences. 

In light of recent news concerning remarkable ways to image and bloodlessly dissect the human brain, much of Terminal Man seems medically quaint and naïve. Still, knowledge about the mind is a terrible thing to waste. As the linked articles below bear out, with every passing day we are learning more about the brain and how to manipulate and stimulate it.

This is all meant to be for the good; neurologists are not aiming at mind control. Clearly, however, as Crichton writes above, new experiences create new expectations. New feedback loops come into existence; new stimuli bring about new responses. A penny for your thoughts?