But can human beings be trusted to be in complete control over their emotional reality?
Current methods for improving your mood are wildly inefficient. Recreational drugs can make you crazy, pharmaceuticals can erase your personality and damage your organs. Sugar and alcohol make you fat and depressed. Caffeine stresses you out, and cigarettes fill your lungs with death. We don't welcome these side effects, but we deal with them because these substances have the potential to alter our emotional thermostat.
It would be so much easier if we could bypass the body altogether and go straight to the source: Our brain. What if there were a better way than shoving something in our mouth, forcing it to travel all over our bloodstream, and blindly showering our brains with thousands of chemicals? What if we could, with the push of a button, make microscopic alterations of a few neurons, causing the happy chemicals to ring out in a jackpot celebration, with no side effects? Would we be ready to handle such complete control over our emotional reality?
The possibilities of direct brain alteration are no longer the realm of dystopian novelists. A recent collaboration between researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine, University of Illinois, and University of Colorado Boulder has resulted in the creation of a brain implant as small as a human hair that can alter a subject's brain chemistry via wireless remote control.
"We were able to engage the motor circuitry and reward circuitry [of a lab mouse]," explained Michael Bruchas, Associate Professor of Neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine, in an interview with VICE. "Going forward, we're definitely interested in applications related to depression and anxiety, and learning more about how the brain is encoding information."
Bruchas is very excited about the research potential of the device. In the past, electroshock therapy stimulated large portions of the brain; oral pharmaceuticals do much the same. The researchers' creation uses a combination of light stimulation and direct application of pharmaceuticals into the brain. Bruchas succeeded with this method in a 2013 study, but only when the test subject was strapped into a machine. Now that a wireless method has been developed, the subject can be observed in all kinds of activities while its brain chemistry is being altered.
"Our brains are full of wires, like a Jackson Pollock painting, and it's been hard to tease out the wiring diagram of the brain [observing patients on drugs via the stomach]," Bruchas told VICE. With this new method, "we can target specific cells, turning them off and on, and so we're able to really see how this is all wired up."
You could create your own reality, instead of having your emotions be subject to the external world around you. This, essentially, is the essence of addiction.
In addition to its potential to teach us volumes about how the brain works, Bruchas is optimistic that, years down the road, this direct access to brain networks could be used to treat epilepsy, mental illness, chronic pain, and brain cancer with few to no side effects.
Yet as with most forms of medical research involving the brain's pleasure center, the potential for abuse from patients—and exploitation of that abuse from big business—is incredibly high.
Anyone with even the most casual sci-fi imagination can conjure up some pretty nefarious uses for a brain implant that controls your body and emotions. Films like Universal Soldier, The Matrix, and The Manchurian Candidate have given us a healthy fear of authoritarian biotechnology. And pulp fiction like Larry Niven's Known Space stories—where addicts known as "wireheads" starve to death when they're able to control their own neural pleasure centers—illustrate the danger of having too much access to our feel-good chemistry.
"That's an important point with any technology, but particularly with technology that engages with biology," Bruchas cautioned. "We consider and discuss ethical issues all the time. It's important to remember that there are still a lot of steps that need to take place before this technology could be put into a human. If it is to go into humans, we see it as something that can deliver discrete drugs to a diseased portion of the brain. So we're looking at it as leading to very positive medicinal benefits."
Compared to other parts of the body, we know relatively little about the human brain, which is the most complex structure in the known universe.
In the last few years the field of neuro-prosthetics has seen some very promising advances, including hearing aids that beam audio signals directly into the auditory nerve, with no need of the ear, allowing a person to receive phone calls or listen to MP3 files within their own brain circuits.
"Brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago," The Wall Street Journal argued last year, in a story that envisioned a future where brain implants allowed humans to absorb libraries of information at the touch of a button. The Journal cautioned that those who mastered the new technology might "outperform others in the everyday contest for jobs and mates, in science, on the athletic field and in armed conflict."
There are ethical arguments over whether it is "right" for a person to be able to learn French or become an expert golfer by simply uploading a file into their heads, or if they should have to earn it via effort and determination. But when it comes to being entrusted with your own emotional thermostat, there is more than just right and wrong to consider.
Knowing what we do about our difficulties handling substances like sugar, booze, drugs, or experiences like sex or television, in spite of all the problems that come with them, how much trouble could we get into when there isn't the disincentive of side effects?
Humans learn through experience. As children, our emotions explode wildly, but most of us eventually learn to control our behavior by regulating those emotions, accepting momentary discomfort in exchange for meeting long term goals (i.e., resisting the impulse to punch your boss in the face or reveal how much you like someone on the first date).
This regulation is performed by an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which acts as the grown-up of your thought process, explaining to the more impulsive, childish characters in your head why you should do this and not that.
But if, many years down the road, we were able to artificially regulate our emotions, the prefrontal cortex could potentially stop being an influence on our thought process, and therefore stop growing, or begin shrinking. After all, if there's no consequence for our actions ("feeling bad" about doing wrong), our behavior could change drastically. We'd be dependent on the device to regulate our emotions, and become dangerous children if it ever malfunctioned.
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Versions of this nightmare have played out in studies where patients are given a hand-held dial that adjusts stimulating electrodes within their brain. In 1986, a 48-year-old woman experienced "erotic sensations" from an electrode in her thalamus, and developed "compulsive use of the stimulator."
"At its most frequent, the patient self-stimulated throughout the day, neglecting personal hygiene and family commitments," the authors of the study wrote.
When the reward systems of our brain become divorced from the actions they're intended to inspire (food, sex, sleep, personal accomplishments), the incentive to go out and do anything would likely disappear. You could create your own reality, instead of having your emotions be subject to the external world around you. This, essentially, is the essence of addiction.
Bruchas and his collaborators have nothing but the most altruistic of intentions in mind when it comes to their work, and their device may do a world of good in treating disease and furthering our understanding of the human brain. But like nuclear power, once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't control the intentions of everyone who uses your invention, and it's easy to imagine someone seeing the extreme money-making potential of a device that allowed us sophisticated access to our own neurological reward systems.
"Technology in the wrong hands always has potentially negative consequences," Bruchas said.
It's possible the wrong hands may be our own.
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