BOOK TWO: NEW HUMAN BEINGS, 2020 - 2060

Chapter Twelve: Future Roads For The Human Psyche

III. Improving The Human Brain

The brains we have got now are of course miraculous, but they are the result of countless tiny improvements to what went before rather than the outcome of one coherent piece of planning aimed at creating a brain for the 21st century – or any other particular moment in time.

As is to be expected, each new cognitive faculty required, so to speak, by evolution, has had to be fitted in alongside the existing instrument, or on top of it. The result is a patchwork of areas with overlapping functions and a wiring diagram, once it has been deciphered, that is far more complicated than perhaps it need have been if all had been designed at once.

As described in the last chapter, tools now being developed including gene therapy, genetic manipulation, bionic implantation, cognitive extensions such as robots, and eventually electronic brain cloning, will open up possibilities for imposing changes on the evolved psyches we now possess, by way of assisting the ability of an individual to function adequately in society as it evolves, including a likelihood that inter-personal communication will become far deeper than it is now through direct brain-to-brain connections bypassing existing sensory channels, and perhaps employing shared cognitive spaces.

Any such development raises significant ethical issues, which have been laid out in previous chapters to a certain extent. Once again it's necessary to state that it's not the purpose of this book to take sides in ethical debate, but simply to explore our possible futures on a pragmatic basis.

It's not very easy to construct the way in which the different technological possibilities will interplay, not least because of the social and ethical constraints that will affect their deployment; however, here are some guesses.

Enlarging The Conscious Cognitive Space

In Chapter One, there was a brief discussion of the possible origins and purpose of consciousness, including a description of its relationship with other parts of the brain. The discussion was taken further, particularly as regards the role of deception (and self-deception) in human cognitive functioning in Chapter Seven, The Internet. Any attempt to break down the barriers that exist between the conscious and the unconscious mind (and some degree of this is essential for anyone following the third, preferred option above) runs immediately into the fact of human deception.

The appearance of deception as an inter-personal, social technique is possibly associated with the beginnings of a theory of mind (awareness of others as separate individuals) and an understanding of intentionality (the ability to impute motivation to others). Deception is described among a very wide range of animal species, and certainly existed as an adaptive technique long before the emergence of social groupings of animals, but individual behaviour intended to deceive one or more conspecifics emerges only as part of 'groupish' behaviour (eg among some primates), and seems to require at least a primitive ability to think of the other as different from oneself.

Recent work on self-deception shows how the human consciousness is used by various parts of the psyche and the external group for their own purposes, and is strongly at odds with any view that consciousness has a directing role in human behaviour. Prominent in the exploration of human self-deception has been Robert Trivers, who describes multiple forms of self-deception which surface in the consciousness, including:

In support of the isolated role of the consciousness in much cognitive processing, research work carried out by B Libet1 clarifies the timetables involved. A highly significant physiological fact is that while it takes about 20 ms for a nervous signal to reach the brain from for example a finger, and the finger can respond in 50 ms, the signal does not register in consciousness (if at all) for 500 ms. A nervous 'round-trip' involving cognitive processing (but not the conscious mind) may take between 100 and 200 ms. However, the registering of a conscious 'intention' to act takes 350 ms from its neuronal origins, and there is a further 200 ms between the registering of the intention and the carrying out of the action. Says Trivers: 'It seems as if our conscious mind is more of an on-looker than a decision-maker'. 500 ms (half a second) is an age in many types of inter-personal transaction, and it seems most unlikely that evolution would have hobbled the ability of the brain to deliver accurate in-group behaviour by constructing such a slow decision process.

Jean Piaget2 is one of many authors who insist that the conscious contains only a selective set of the results of extensive cognitive activity being carried out in the brain at large, and that those results can sometimes be misleading. Although he is dealing with the child, he explicitly states that this principle applies to all humans.

Pascal Boyer3 describes the mental processes involved in decision-making in a wide range of situations, independently of consciousness: 'Various plans for action are considered and most of them are rejected by higher planning functions without our being aware of this selection'. Such processes may well take account of 'moral' precepts and may well not take account of beliefs (or moral attitudes) available to the consciousness if they are momentarily inappropriate, leading to self-deception, although this was not (necessarily) the intended outcome of the process.

Evidently there were benefits from the interlocking roles of consciousness and deception in the historical context of human social development, but it is not clear that it is necessary or desirable for the situation to continue as it is. Humans seem to be born ready to deceive rather than ready to trust, and each individual goes through a long and difficult process of socialization and personal self-development in order to attain a reasonable level of openness, transparency and honesty in social dealings. Many people, perhaps most, never do.

It would arguably be an improvement to the human psyche to arrange better access for consciousness to those parts of the brain it cannot currently access, and to the processes that take place in them. That could include some parts of what we currently term the 'unconscious'. There may be occasions on which a more sentient human being might still choose to be deceptive – but many people might think it an improvement if hypocrisy, bigotry, snobbery and the like played a much less prominent role in human affairs, which is the likely result if people could be aware of the unconscious processes that cause them to dissemble – both to others and to themselves.

More needs to be known about how the brain functions before one could be very specific about how such a change could be effected, but some directions can already be discerned.

Internal Cognitive Enhancements

The bilateral symmetry of the brain is one candidate for attention. This symmetry was a response to a particular set of environmental demands (there are conflicting theories about just which demands) but it has led to curious lacunae in human thinking processes. The popular conception of 'left brain' versus 'right brain' (feeling versus ratiocination) is not wrong, and there are many situations in life in which a more even-handed access to the two hemispheres would be adaptive for today's human individuals.

During a discussion of anosognosia (a condition in which a person who suffers disability due to brain injury seems unaware of or denies the existence of their handicap), Ramachandran and Blakeslee4 link self-deception to the existence of two hemispheres in the brain, without going so far as to suggest any causative mechanism.

Dr Tim Crow5, of the Department of Psychiatry, Warneford Hospital, Oxford, followed by Affara at Cambridge, show that functional bi-lateralization of the brain followed the evolution of hominids, and can be attributed to a mutated protein involved in early development of the embryo. This development took place at generally the same time that the set of group behaviours began to emerge (about 3 – 4 million years ago, based on DNA evidence).

Improving inter-hemispherical communication, which currently takes place mostly through the corpus callosum (a relatively small and limited bundle of neuronal tissue linking the two hemispheres), either through bionic implants, selective dna or drug therapy, or embryonic manipulation, is likely to have a good effect on the cognitive effectiveness of an individual in some situations, at least.

Improved access to memory is another clear candidate for advanced technology. There are already drugs and gene therapies which retard or even cure memory impairment in senile dementia and other conditions. Clearly it will not be long before their use becomes widespread to improve recall. Research work has made progress in locating the 'lexicon' used by the brain to store words and their associated meanings.

Although there doesn't seem to be a capacity problem as such in the brain, it is probable that it will be possible to improve the scale and functioning of memory using either bionic implants or wireless or magnetic access to external stores of data. At present, the brain routinely accesses external linguistic information held in a variety of storage media via at least the three senses of sight, hearing and touch. Pathways from the different sensory areas converge towards areas which receive and process the linguistic data and meld it with related internal data to produce, eventually, linguistic output. The 'melding' area is the point in the brain at which input could be received from additional data stores whether internal or external. That may also be the point from which pathways could be created towards currently 'subsconscious' stores of cognitive data.

One particularly intriguing area is the access of the consciousness to 'groupish' segments of the brain, that is the parts of the brain which hold knowledge of group memberships, relationships with other group members, and the sets of rules which govern those relationships. Many researchers have supposed that the enormous volume of this information was one of the main causes of increasing brain-size in early hominids. Although some of this information is available to consciousness, some of the time, most of it is hidden, although of course it is used all the time by the unconscious decision-making cognitive apparatus.

These and other re-engineerings of the internal workings of the brain are likely to be technically feasible by 2050, if not before, and alongside them will be opportunities for enlargement of a human's cognitive space through access to external electronic cognition. External memory (data-bases) was mentioned above, in the sense of a static store of information that would be available to the existing brain through wireless, magnetic or even cable communication. Given a choice between having a 'port' on the side of one's head, or implanted communication devices, some people may choose the former. The disadvantage, obviously, is that while 'plugged in' some mobility is lost. In many situations that might not matter. Longer-term, direct wireless connection to 'the cloud' seems like to be the preferred route.

External Cognitive Enhancements

External cognitive devices with which humans will learn to communicate will include robots, domestic control systems, teaching computers, electronic 'rooms' for group use in, eg, business activity, clubs of all kinds, and family forums.

It is already commonplace to view through the sensory apparatus of robotic devices. Surgeons operate remotely; Houston inspects the shuttle for damage through remote cameras or through cameras held by astronauts; pilots have 'head-up' displays of telemetry or targets. The crucial step forward will be for such sensory information (not just visual) to be received directly by the brain. Experimental control of prosthetic limbs by thought processes has already been demonstrated, with a combination of nerve signals and electronic sensors; it is only a matter of time before the brain will be able to receive and work with information transmitted from remote sources – say, 2020. Shortly after that a human will be able to control a robot as if it was an organic extension of the human body (this has already been demonstrated in monkeys – see the previous chapter); and by adding quasi-human cognitive abilities to the robot, an individual will be able to work in a sentient partnership with the robot. The robot at that point has in a real sense become a partial cognitive clone of the human, and many aspects of a human's daily life could be lived through such surrogate devices. The avoidance of physical risk is one obvious benefit, but there are many others, including that people would no longer need to travel.

One of the most interesting prospective applications of 'remote cognition', to give it a name, is group cognition. It's not possible to know whether Jung's 'collective unconscious' just means an understanding shared by a number of group members, or whether it refers to some sort of buried telepathic ability which humans have lost during the development of speech and visual, especially facial communication. What is sure, though, is that remote cognition will permit people to work together in a common cognitive space, in which they will have access (with permission) to parts of each other's own minds. The beginnings of this can be seen in the virtual 'rooms' which are used by Merger & Acquisition teams, and even more in the virtual communities that have been created on the Internet such as Second Life and MySpace.

References

1 Libet, B (1996) Neuronal Time Factors in Conscious and Unconscious Mental Functions, in Towards a Science of Consciousness: The First Tucson Discussion and Debates, ed S R Hameroff A W Kaszniak & A Scott, pp 337-347, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

2 Piaget, J (1973) The Child and Reality; Problems of Genetic Psychology, tr A Rosin, Viking Press, USA (originally published in French in 1972)

3 Boyer, P (2001) Religion Explained; The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Basic Books, New York

4 Ramachandran, V S, and Blakeslee, S (1998) Phantoms in the Brain: Human Nature and the Architecture of the Mind, Fourth Estate Limited, London

5 Crow, T (2002) British Journal of Psychiatry