Being able to read and rewrite the minds of humans is dangerously close to being possible. Indeed, they’re pushing for an official ruling on what consciousness is.
The field of neurotechnology is growing rapidly—perhaps too quickly, as the burgeoning industry promises the ability to “alter” consciousness. In the wake of this promise, a Columbia University neuroscience professor is advocating the UN to adopt “neuro-rights.”
Mentions of out-of-body experiences (OBEs) are common in spiritual literature. Previously thought to signify a spiritual “essence” co-existing alongside biology, OBEs gained traction in the scientific realm when they were replicated in a laboratory in 2007. Researchers at University College London were able to induce OBEs in volunteers through the use of head-mounted video displays. Since then, other researchers have also been able to induce OBEs through electrical and magnetic stimulation of the brain.
If a meticulously-placed magnet can cause you to “leave” your body, what might be possible with transcranial stimulation?
This is of growing concern as wearable scanners become more prevalent. Earlier this month, Columbia University neuroscience professor Rafael Yuste made a case to the United Nations to adopt “neuro-rights” into its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“If you can record and change neurons, you can in principle read and write the minds of people. This is not science fiction. We are doing this in lab animals successfully,” said Yuste in an online conference.
According to BigThink, the field of neurotechnology is “a growing field that includes a range of technologies that influence higher brain activities. Therapeutics designed to repair and improve brain function are included in this discipline—interventions for sleep problems, overstimulation, motor coordination, epilepsy, even depression.” They also note, however, that such technology could have devastating effects in the wrong hands.
The relationship between science and ethics is not new. The debate over embryonic stem cells went on for years, with promises of trait enhancement concerning those who thought scientists were “playing God.” While that discussion may have died down, another in a similar vein has taken its place: the role of neurotechnology by militaries and tech companies.
Those who believe every individual must reserve the right to maintain their own agency are believers in cognitive liberty. Cognitive liberty is defined as “the right of each individual to think independently and autonomously, to use the full power of his or her mind, and to engage in multiple modes of thought,” as written by neuroethicist Dr Wrye Sententia and legal theorist Richard Glen Boire.
Cognitive liberty is not currently recognised as a human right by any meaningful international human rights treaty. Yes, freedom of thought is, but while freedom of thought is concerned with protecting one’s freedom to think whatever they want, cognitive liberty is concerned with protecting an individual’s freedom to think however they want—cognitive liberty seeks to preserve an individual’s state of mind and see to it that it is free from external control, rather than just seeking to protect the contents of an individual’s thoughts.
Yuste is of the opinion that the U.N.’s declaration, which was created in the wake of World War II in the middle of the 20th century, requires revision, and quickly. Deep brain stimulation is already an FDA-approved procedure.
Digital technology, specifically social media, already presents a myriad of mental and physical health problems in its current state. If tech has the capability to get “under the skull and get at our neurons,” as Johns Hopkins professor of neurology and neuroscience, John Krakauer, says, a sense of urgency exists.
“This is the first time in history that humans can have access to the contents of people’s minds. We have to think very carefully about how we are going to bring this into society,” warns Yutse.