The battle for your brain: defending the right to think freely in the age of neurotechnology, by Nita A. Farahany, St. Maarten, 288 pages, $29.99
“We are rapidly moving towards a world of brain transparency, in which scientists, doctors, governments and corporations can peer into our brains and minds at will,” says Duke University bioethicist Nita A. Farahany. The battle for your brain. To defend against this neurosurveillance, his timely book argues for a right to cognitive freedom that includes “mental privacy, freedom of thought, and self-determination” – a right that allows us to track and hack into our own brains but keeps us from infringing on other minds.
We face a choice, suggests Farahany: We can have a complete dystopia of surveillance and control or a world where individuals can choose to use devices and drugs that help them “work and learn smarter and faster.” , cure us of addiction and depression, and perhaps even alleviate human suffering.”
On the surveillance side, China’s state-owned power grid company already requires tens of thousands of its workers to wear Entertech headsets integrated with brainwave measurement sensors to detect fatigue and other mental states. Such electroencephalogram (EEG) monitoring technology has also been developed by the Australian company SmartCap. It is used by more than 5,000 consumers worldwide, including mining and trucking companies, to detect employee fatigue at work. San Francisco-based company Emotiv has developed EEG headphones that can detect when an employee’s concentration on a task is slipping and suggest they take a break.
Farahany describes a scenario in which a boss calls an employee wearing Emotiv headphones to discuss a contract renewal with a 2% raise. Although the company is willing to increase the employee’s salary by up to 10% to keep her, the listeners detect that she is happy with the proposed increase. Any salary negotiation would essentially be over before it started. “Even the most committed freedom-of-contract libertarian,” Farahany asserts, “would question the fairness of this negotiation.”
At the same time, Farahany is a fierce critic of regulators, doctors and bioethicists who would paternally deny us access to our own brain data. The South Korean company iMediSync markets an EEG device capable of detecting the first signs of Alzheimer’s dementia with 90% accuracy. It can also detect evidence of various other neurological conditions: Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, attention deficit disorder, and even depression. Farahany argues that users should have access, unmediated and unrestricted by “experts”, to the brain data that consumer neurotechnology can provide.
As examples of the government interference she hates, Farahany cites previous rules barring giving people access to home pregnancy and HIV testing. She also mentions the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) senseless crackdown on health information provided by consumer genetic testing company 23andMe. (Disclosure: Like Farahany, I was an early and very happy customer of 23andMe.) “In my opinion,” Farahany writes, “the FDA’s actions against 23andMe have been a tragic defeat for patient empowerment and a threat to for freedom of expression by restricting our free access to information.” She’s absolutely right about that, and she’s right about not wanting the same thing to happen to mainstream neurotech.
In addition to the right to track your brain, Farahany says you have the right to hack your brain. She refutes the specious claim that boosting brain function with cognition-enhancing drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and Provigil is somehow equivalent to doping athletes with steroids – an analogy established by various universities, including that of of Farahany. Sports, she notes, are zero-sum games defined by arbitrary rules. Life is not. “To the extent that drugs and smart devices improve our focus, our motivation, our focus, our concentration, our memory, we should celebrate them rather than ban them,” Farahany says. “What is at stake is at the heart of cognitive freedom – the right to self-determination over our brains and our lives.”
Does this mean that peer pressure will compel people to use cognitive enhancers so they don’t fall behind? Banning the use of enhancements because of “implicit coercion,” says Farahany, would be like what the government does in Kurt Vonnegut’s lamentable fable “Harrison Bergeron”: it forces the smarter, prettier, or more athletic to carry handicaps so everyone has the same abilities and attributes. “The role of government should not be to make all our abilities equal,” Farahany argues, “but to allow us to flourish as individuals and as societies.”
If cognitive freedom implies the right to improve one’s mental abilities, does it also include the right to diminish them? Here, Farahany gives a somewhat mixed yes: people have the right to use drugs which undoubtedly diminish some of their mental capacities as long as they do not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others or with the duties users have towards others. An example of the latter would be excessive drug use which renders a parent unable to care for a dependent child.
Farahany notes that the social costs of cognitive decline are “used to justify drug abuse laws,” which can have perverse consequences. Farahany, a longtime migraine sufferer, uses prescription opioids to control her pain. She points out that only 8-12% of people who take prescribed opioids for chronic pain become addicted. She also observes that the restrictive opioid prescribing guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in 2016 have resulted in the “systemic undertreatment of pain, with consequences just as devastating as addiction.”
Farahany does not address another horrific result of restrictions on opioid prescriptions: the rising number of overdose deaths as many opioid users turn to dangerous black market drugs containing fentanyl and others. compounds. In addition to making drug use more dangerous, prohibition clearly violates the cognitive freedoms of recreational drug users who do not interfere with the rights of others.
The implications of brain-surveillance and mind-altering technologies become much more sinister when deployed by government agents. Farahany brings up the CIA’s Cold War-era MK-Ultra program, which investigated the possibilities of mind control. Among other abuses, the CIA induced insulin comas in its subjects and administered LSD to non-consenting people.
More recently, NATO’s 2020 report Cognitive warfare stated that “the human mind is now seen as a new domain of warfare”. To counter the weaponization of neurotechnology, Farahany advocates for international covenants against torture to be updated to include a ban on the use of technologies “designed to erase our personalities, identities and mental functioning.”
Farahany also covers recent advances in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) by companies such as Synchron and Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Neuralink’s implantable BCI with over 1,000 electrodes is the size of a quarter. Synchron’s BCI is a small mesh tube that is implanted into the brain through blood vessels via a catheter. In January, Synchron reported that four paralyzed patients implanted with its device for more than a year were able to text, email, manage their personal finances, shop online and communicate their care needs, the while using only their minds.
Looking further into the future, Farahany takes seriously the transhuman possibilities of BCIs that could record and map the entire structure of a person’s brain, including all memory traces. If this copy could be downloaded to run on the appropriate hardware, it would offer users the possibility of digital immortality.
In this part of the book, Farahany focuses primarily on BCIs as exit devices under the control of the people they are implanted into. But one can easily imagine governments using BCIs to invade users’ privacy by monitoring their thoughts and scraping their memories. There is also the risk that malicious public and private actors will attempt to hack BCIs, subverting users’ self-determination by directly manipulating their neurons to alter their memories and political opinions.
“Neurotechnology has unprecedented power to empower or oppress us,” Farahany writes. “The choice is ours.” The battle for your brain is a superb introduction to how rapid advances in neurotechnology can enhance or undermine free spirits.