A new book about neuroscience says humans are nothing more than the connections between our brain cells. How does that change what it means to be a good man?
There are a ton of great movies where robots go crazy and start killing people. (I know I’m meant to be talking about books here, not movies, but bear with me.) 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terminator, The Matrix… I’m sure I’m missing several more, too. We just love watching movies where the machines turn against us.
The horror in these stories, usually, comes from the idea that even a machine built to do good has the capacity to do evil; the comfort, from knowing that there’s still a limit to what mere circuits can do. It’s not because that the humans always triumph, eventually. It’s because we can tell ourselves that if a machine does turn against us, it’s only because we built it wrong. That the difference between good and bad amounts to a few wires in the wrong place.
So how should we feel that neuroscientists are now threatening to reduce the human mind to the sum of its wires? I don’t mean the usual, trite metaphor about the human brain being “wired” one way or another—I’m talking literally, these guys want to map out the exact pattern of connections between every single cell in your brain, and use it to define your personality, your memories, your consciousness… You.
Such a map, were it to exist, would be called your “connectome,” or at least so says Sebastian Seung, MIT professor and author of the new book of the same name. In Connectome (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27), Seung makes a passionate argument for the fledgling science of connectomics, listing countless reasons why studying our connectomes is a great idea.
Cure mental disease! Restore lost memories! Alter personalities! Such are the promises of connectomics, according to Seung. In the book’s closing chapters, he even gets philosophical, with a whole section devoted to the sci-fi possibilities of downloading your connectome into a computer. According to the theory, preserving your connectome in the cloud will essentially let you live forever.
Seung’s a fantastically talented writer, with the same knack for reducing complex theories to elegant analogies that marks Steven Pinker’s early books (and none of the condescending pomposity of his later ones). He manages to make neuroscience not just clear but entertaining, and in his broad and thoughtful history of the field he takes numerous fascinating tangents. Did you know that barbers used to be charged with surgery, not doctors? That you probably have a “Jennifer Anniston neuron”? That you can study the brain’s visual development by putting sunglasses on owls?
If there’s a problem with Connectome, though, it’s that Seung doesn’t get philosophical enough, raving about the potential of connectomics while rarely considering its consequences. Partly this is a matter of expertise, I’m sure, and there’s something to be said for leaving science to the scientists and philosophy to the philosophers. Partly it’s also a matter of space; when you’re trying to condense the entire history of a discipline into 270 or so pages, there’s not a lot of room left for anything else. And yet I think I’d rather have seen a little less fine-grained neuroscience and a little more sober reflection.
For example, what are the consequences of diagnosing a “faulty” connectome? This sort of question already gets asked a lot, in both medicine and psychology, and I’m surprised Seung doesn’t give it much space because here it seems very relevant. When you’re diagnosing a psychological disorder based on symptoms, there’s room for prudence and professional discretion; for mild symptoms, a diagnosis of something like bipolar disorder or autism might bring more social stigma than relief. If those symptoms are linked with a clear physical abnormality in a person’s connectome, however, it would be harder to justify non-intervention even if the doctor thinks that might be best.
Of course, the obvious counter-argument is that fixing bipolar disorder (or whatever) through connectome repair would be fundamentally more effective than current therapies—so there’s less gray area and more reason to just do it. But I wonder about that, too. Do we really want to tread the minefield of establishing what a normal connectome looks like and what warrants treatment?
If our connectomes really control who we are, we’re talking about opening up our personalities and our memories—the very cores of our being—to an unprecedented level of medical intervention. That’s far more dangerous than Seung seems to realize. (Since I keep bringing up movies, think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)
Besides, isn’t variation between personalities what makes life so interesting? And isn’t it precisely the people who are just a little bit crazy—Steve Jobs, Kurt Vonnegut, Einstein, Galileo—who make the most transformative contributions to society? Once we start defining “normal” in terms of patterns of connections in the brain, we risk losing the very thing that makes humans human: the space between the wires. Our souls, if you like.
This might all strike you as a lot of worry about nothing, since connectome imaging is decades if not centuries away. But there are good reasons to start asking questions about this stuff now, primarily that, if we do, we might actually be capable of dealing sensibly with the technology when it does come along.
And, more importantly, if we don’t ask these questions now, we might end up in a world where there’s nothing you can do to make yourself a good man or a bad one—because, like Hal or the T1000, all anybody will care about is the arrangement of your wires. For those of us concerned with being good men, that removal of any say in the matter seems like a tough pill to swallow.