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Humanist Values, Brain Science, and "Mind-Reading".

In keeping with the policy of the Humanist to accommodate the diverse cultural social political and philosophical viewpoints of its readers, this occasional feature allows for the expression of alternative, dissenting or opposing views on issues previously broached within these pages.

Editor's note:

Because scientific advancements can, through technology, create awesome new powers, science is both revered and feared. And nowhere is this public ambivalence toward science more manifest than in the field of neurology. Brain studies promise and threaten to cut to the very core of our thinking, our feeling, our personality. But how rapid is this progress? In particular, need we worry that scientists will soon be able to read our minds--or is that a baseless concern?

PAST HISTORY, contemporary spy novels, and futuristic science fiction are replete with terrifying tales of attempts by mad scientists or evil militarists to read or control people's thoughts--whether by hypnosis, truth sera, mind rays, magic, or any of a myriad of other mostly imaginary methods. The May/June 2001 Humanist carried an article, "The Science of Reading Minds," in which its author Bruce Hinrichs states in part: "Contemporary brain-imaging techniques are even now verging on having mind-reading capabilities." We believe this article gives a misleading impression and would like to offer a more realistic assessment of the facts.

The implications of "mind-reading" for civil liberties would, of course, be incalculable. Any possibility of conflict between personal privacy and the development of technology for brain investigations is an extremely important concept in a free society, and we must take it very seriously and examine it carefully. Since the issue of "mind-reading" has been raised, there are three pertinent questions that must be addressed. How do we as humanists look upon scientific research and technological advances in general and what limits do we place on them? What are some of the reasons, legitimate and illegitimate, why someone might want to study your or my brain? And just how much information ("mind-reading") might it be possible to obtain, voluntarily or involuntarily, by methodologies available now or in the future?

It's usually said that science and its handmaiden, technology, have three main uses: making it possible for us to explain, predict, and to some degree control the circumstances of our lives. Without these abilities we'd be completely helpless. A complex human society in a complex universe heavily depends on the methods and the discoveries of science and the advancing power of technology. These are especially important to humanism; in fact, without them humanism almost certainly could not have come into existence in the first place. Much of pre-humanistic thinking grew out of unsuccessful efforts to explain, predict, and control the human environment by pre-scientific methods, frequently depending on concepts of what we would call supernatural forces and entities. And our present knowledge of human history, which helps us to understand these mechanisms of pre-humanistic thought, has itself gradually resulted from scientific investigations into the past.

Although the methods of science and technology aren't especially difficult to learn, the same harsh reality that makes us so dependent on them punishes those who ignore small details or take them lightly. A single misplaced decimal point can cause--and has caused--a mighty bridge to collapse. This may be one reason why many people find these disciplines intimidating and choose to leave them and the power they bestow, by default, to an elite group that refuses to be intimidated. The larger society that results, often described as scientifically illiterate, regards this elite group with great ambivalence, almost like a priesthood. The masses hang onto every mysterious word that falls from the priests' lips, hoping to benefit, but at the same time fear and mistrust the priests' power.

While scientific and technological advances themselves are glorious human treasures, fear and mistrust of the awesome power of the scientist-priest aren't always entirely misplaced. It's a common human error to abuse power, and it's an equally common human error to let others abuse it. Most of us know better than to assume that the scientist-priest either will only use power for our benefit or only abuse power to harm us. We know that, if we want the benefits of scientific knowledge, it's our responsibility to understand enough and be alert enough to ensure that knowledge is beneficently used. It's especially our responsibility as humanists, since we are not only among the stoutest defenders of science and technology but also among the strongest advocates of the worth and dignity of every human being.

Humanism rejects fear-mongering that bypasses our critical faculties and appeals directly to our emotions. Fear of scientific and technological progress therefore is a totally unhumanistic attitude. Humanists acknowledge that every step of such progress can be and has sometimes been abused--from ancient metallurgy to the Internet. We believe that both the promotion and the criticism of scientific and technological advances should be responsible, weighing the possible benefits against the possible drawbacks, based on the best available published research. If drawbacks are known or suspected, they must be openly and vigorously scrutinized. Whenever new scientific or technological advances loom in the near future, both support for their continued growth and safeguards against their abuse must be developed through intensive investigation.

In a democratic society the role of institutional review boards (IRBs) is crucial in assuring that research is developed for the betterment of our lives. IRBs exist on many levels and ensure a number of checkpoints where the proposed research is scrutinized. The peer review necessary for publishing scientific results also requires and examines these same issues and provides yet another layer of safeguards. On the other hand, agencies that aren't subject to public scrutiny--for example, the military or criminal groups--can and usually do go ahead and develop technologies for their own purposes. Only if scientists in organizations like universities, where they are subject to public inspection, are also versed in these technologies can the public become aware of the extent to which these new developments can be abused.

Nowhere is fear and mistrust of the scientist-priest more evident than in popular attitudes toward the biological sciences. For many people, biologists cross a line into forbidden territory--a viewpoint illustrated by the personal experience one of us had upon receiving his Ph.D. in physiology. Grandmother Schafer, visiting on this auspicious occasion and rocking in a rocking chair, asked, "Well, David, what does a physiologist do, anyway?" When he answered, "Grandma, a physiologist studies the parts of the body and tries to find out how they work," the rocking stopped and this good Christian lady drew herself up, looked him straight in the eye, and said, "Why, David, that's none of your business!"

Although the enormous benefits of biological knowledge to humanity are clear to almost everybody, most are relatively uninterested in merely understanding the mysteries of everyday life, which are of very great importance to biologists--and to humanists committed to understanding human nature. Most people are far more interested in the physician's skills in explaining, predicting, and controlling the course of disease (using the more elevated terms diagnosis, prognosis, and therapy) and seem willing to forego part of their mistrust, so long as it means they can live longer and more pain-free lives.

Yet when it comes to the knowledge of brain function, fear and mistrust of the investigator or the doctor are likely to come strongly to the fore. We're often secretly afraid of knowing too much about how our own brains work, not to mention letting someone else know our thoughts--conceivably even better than we do. We jealously guard our privacy, usually with considerable justification. Everyone has secrets to conceal, and the consequences of being caught in a lie can sometimes be devastating in the extreme. If someone wanted to study our thoughts, many of us would respond, "Why, that's none of your business!"

It's quite true that, since brain research can be very expensive, most of it must be supported by government health agencies (mainly through universities), the military, large foundations, and profit-making corporations. Their motives for funding may range from altogether benevolent to suspect to self-serving to mischievous to the ability to wage large-scale destructive war. History reveals that many of the greatest scientific and technological advances--going back at least to Archimedes at Syracuse and continuing today all around us--were motivated by needs of the military, which is rarely without funds, and it's always possible that brain research might be benefited at some point in the same way.

Society sees profound peaceful benefits in the study of innumerable serious brain conditions, including stroke, epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease, brain tumors, mental retardation, substance addiction, violent behavior, and other dysfunctional forms of emotional illness. When former president George Bush declared the 1990s to be "The Decade of the Brain," it was widely expected that substantial progress would accrue in brain research during that period of increased funding, and those hopes weren't disappointed.

The human electroencephalographic (EEG) signal was first recorded by German psychiatrist Hans Berger in 1925 (using his son as an early subject) and published in 1929. The idea of being able to read minds was one of his first hopes, perhaps including the possibility of discovering direct communication between minds. The potential unraveling of the mystery of all mental processes in both health and disease was a tantalizing thought. The extreme difficulty of knowing what went on in the minds of acute psychotics, severely depressed and suicidal persons, or homicidal psychopaths caused this hope to spread swiftly among the neuropsychiatric community of that time.

But the hope soon dissipated among the myriad of technical and scientific limitations of the procedure. It rapidly became clear that the EEG was utterly unable to identify even major cerebral events like delusions, hallucinations, or obsessions. The EEG became the province of the medical field of neurology, as it was then capable only of identifying gross brain pathology like tumors, strokes, and epilepsy. It is even likely that this disappointment in a once-promising biological brain-examining tool caused psychiatry to turn away for a time from biological investigations of the brain to more psychological or sociocultural theories of mental illness and to base treatments primarily on these theories.

In recent years, however, many exciting new technologies have coalesced to rekindle interest in the neurobiology of our mental processes. Powerful medications have been discovered that ameliorate specific psychopathological symptoms, many of them by blocking or stimulating a host of specific brain receptor sites. Some of these have been combined with rapidly advancing biophysical technologies like computer-assisted EEG analysis or quantified-EEG (QEEG), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and single-photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT). The early promising results of such techniques in understanding both normal and aberrant workings of the brain have given powerful impetus to further research. Two new fields have emerged as a result of these developments: cognitive neuroscience and biological psychiatry. Basic neuroscience, which had existed for two centuries, has grown enormously just in the past few years.

In spite of these advances, however, the fields of biological psychiatry and cognitive neuroscience remain in their infancy. The task of understanding the workings of the human brain--a fantastic, complex organ of approximately 10 billion units (neurons), each with 5,000 to 10,000 connections to other neurons--has barely begun. It has been estimated that the brain uses close to 30,000 chemicals to conduct its business, only about 1,000 of which have been identified; and the roles of most of these have not yet been characterized.

The idea that an EEG or PET scan or fMRI, or some combination of these, might in the proximate future be able to tell us what a person is thinking becomes absurd when we consider that even the simplest thought, word, or idea is represented in the brain in a coded message involving the integrated functioning of perhaps thousands of neurons in very different parts of the brain, and that this coding may differ from person to person and in a single person from time to time or under different conditions. Studies of the localization of brain functions have not yet begun to crack this code and aren't likely to do so any time soon.

Not only location but timing is a major technological problem. A thought occurs in an interval on the order of microseconds (one-millionth of a second). No brain research technology available today has this level of temporal resolution. The EEG has a resolution in the millisecond (one-thousandth of a second) range, but all other functional technologies (fMRI or PET) have temporal resolutions on the order of tens of seconds. Hence, only the EEG has the potential to yield information about rapid mental processes.

Just to give you an idea of what happens in QEEG recording and analysis, here's a brief account of the procedure. Modern-day EEG recording usually requires data from thirty-two to 256 electrodes placed on the scalp. Activity coming from the brain is extremely faint and has to be amplified 10,000 to 20,000 times to be recordable by our technology. The machines can't tell whether EEG activity is generated from the brain or from the underlying muscles of the head, moving eyes, swallowing, or problems that arise from the electrical interface of the electrodes and scalp (and these are many). Moreover, the EEG is sensitive to noise produced by the environment--for example, by electric power lines and any electric or magnetic instruments.

The very first step is to make sure all signals that aren't brain-produced are removed before data analysis can begin. This is a formidable task that automation hasn't yet been able to deal with effectively. Once this process is over, the daunting job of analysis begins. With data collected every millisecond from each of thirty-two to 256 channels, often for hours, the size of a QEEG file is enormous. Examination of the patterns then takes days of sophisticated work to compare electrode sites to each other and the two sides of the brain, as well as comparing the entire record of one person to previously developed (multi-person) databases for comparison.

The present magnitude of the "mind-reading" problem is easily illustrated by the fact that none of the available technologies is even able to contribute to the diagnosis of any of the major psychiatric syndromes. How many patients come to the emergency room stating that they are suicidal, when in fact they are trying to hide from a creditor? And how many times have psychiatrists missed suicidal ideations and patients killed themselves? How often do frankly psychotic patients deny that anything is wrong with them, and it becomes the psychiatrist's hunch versus the patient's word? The diagnosis and treatment of such devastating conditions as borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality or even drug dependence would be helped a great deal if any of these tests could, with at least some degree of accuracy, describe the patient's thinking patterns. But the fact is that we aren't even close to achieving that.

The most we can hope for, at least in the foreseeable future, is to be able to accurately identify forms of normal or abnormal thinking. Maybe some day happy thoughts can be differentiated from sad or angry thoughts. But to think that an EEG will be able to tell us when someone is having a specific thought such as "I would like a drink of vermouth" is totally unfounded. Moreover, all these tests require a major cooperation on the part of the subject. These tests are technically extremely demanding and only with full cooperation can any meaningful data be generated. Even if the technology develops to some totally unforeseeable extent, the subject must still be willing for his or her thoughts to be identified.

The road toward a complete understanding of the workings of the brain in both healthy and psychopathological conditions will surely be very long and very arduous. Public understanding and support for these lines of investigations are sorely needed to help overcome the devastating effects of abnormal mental processes like those in schizophrenia and other disabling psychiatric disorders. Mental disorders are by definition devastating for the lives of the patients and their families and communities, as well as being a severe economic burden on society as a whole.

Humanists must take an especially supportive and concerned stance, as mental illness tends to rob its victims of their inherent dignity by getting them incarcerated in mental institutions and frequently depriving them of their freedoms through a prolonged recovery process. Emerging technologies that can accurately diagnose and effectively treat mental disorders give hope for both patients and their families of a future without suffering--a future where the stigma of mental illness is a subject for history books. Humanism looks to that future with realism and embraces the human race with all its genius.

Nashaat Boutros is associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. David Schafer is a recently retired physiologist who now devotes most of his time to humanist writing and lecturing.
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Author:Schafer, David
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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