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The Seven Dangerous Neuro-Temptations

William Struthers

How not to think about the brain

Professor of Psychology, Wheaton College
August 6, 2013

Do you like brain science? Sure, we all do. It looks cool, it sounds exciting, it tickles our intellect, and it promises to solve all of life’s questions. Why do we do the things we do?

We’ve all seen the pulsating red, yellow and blue brain scans from laboratories of people doing any number of things ranging from playing video games and mentally rotating objects, to having a mental illness diagnosed. The technology is compelling, appealing to neurological explanations that give us the impression that people smarter than us are figuring it all out. There is something fascinating about the brain—it thinks about itself!! As the seat of our consciousness and all of our psychological experience, the brain is situated as, perhaps, the most crucial organ in the body. If your kidneys go bad, you can get a kidney transplant and still be the same person. But transplant the brain and be the same person? Are you still you? Most of us would say, “No.”

While brain transplants are still a part of science fiction (at least for now), there have been a number of startling developments in recent years that force us to stop and consider how a three pound mass of tissue located in our cranium trafficking in chemicals, hormones, and electrical impulses can be tweaked to produce any number of changes in personality, emotion, behavior, and thought. We live in an era when transcranial magnets are used to treat depression, deep brain stimulation is used to treat Parkinson’s disease, portions of the brain are being removed in cases of severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and new drugs are coming down the pipeline to treat attention deficit disorder. In this heady new world of brain science run riot, is probably a good idea to stop and take stock of some of the potential dangers that could be looming on the not too distant horizon. As a brain scientist, I feel compelled to give you a ‘heads up’. To keep things straightforward, let’s call these issues the Seven Dangerous Neuro-Temptations.

Why seven temptations? Well, why not? Seven is a good number, and they’ll be as easy to remember as the Seven Deadly Sins: greed, sloth, wrath, lust, envy, pride, and gluttony. With every temptation, however, there is a response—an opportunity to rely on God to reveal His goodness and His provision or to exercise our brokenness and our sinful nature. If we yield to the temptation, its consequences are deadly. Just to make these temptations memorable, let’s be sure to affix the Neuro- prefix to them all (these days, that seems to get everyone’s attention and brings an aura of legitimacy).

1. Neuro-Essentialism. The first Dangerous Temptation, Neuro-Essentialism, is the belief that what makes you human is having just the right nervous system that functions in just the right way. Being a human being is essentially defined by your neurological anatomy and functionality. Unfortunately, this takes the nervous system out of the body. But any good biologist will tell you that the brain is part of an integrated system (and does some pretty important integration work in the process). The body should be an important component of what it means to be human. But the Neuro-Essentialist will disregard the body, saying, at the end of the day, it is all about your brain.

2. Neuro-Manipulation. It is obvious that our knowledge of how the brain works can be used to influence people to do what we want them to. We use drugs to help people with pathology cope and function. We use surgical techniques to remove tumors to alleviate life-threatening disease in the brain. But drugs and other neurological techniques now begin to open up new opportunities for us to manipulate and coerce. Drawing the line between therapeutic intervention and coercion will become increasingly difficult. This sort of behavioral control will most likely surface in legal contexts (e.g., prisoners submitting to neurological treatment for reduced sentences), but will very likely rear its head in other contexts as well (e.g., parenting, education systems, marketing). When the use of these technologies is used for something other than medical intervention, where should we draw the line?

3. Neuro-Divination. Predicting the future. With this Neuro-Temptation, we are seduced to use neuroscience to affect the future for some desired end, or predicting an outcome. In a neuroscientific version of the film Minority Report, the use of psychics (the “Pre-Cogs”) to predict the future could be replaced by brain scans to determine everything from which political candidate you will vote for, to whether or not you will commit a crime. Already we are beginning to see studies that have examined the brains of criminals to predict the likelihood of recidivism. The human race has always been preoccupied with predicting the future, so it wouldn’t be a surprise that the technologies and research that neuroscientists are developing could be used in such a way.

4. Neuro-Absolution. “My brain made me do it.” This Neuro-Temptation is in the abdication of responsibility for moral failure. As neuroscience has moved powerfully into the legal system, religious traditions, and the broader cultural mindset. How will we appeal to neuroscientific studies in order to absolve people of criminal offenses, sins, or cultural offenses? A quick look at any number of media outlets reveals a growing trend of appealing to brain science as a way to salve the consciences of those who breach ethical standards.

5. Neuro-Narcissism. With this temptation, more and more people may become preoccupied with their own cognitive abilities and look for ways to enhance them to stand apart from their peers. While we already live in a world that is impatient with those who fall below what we consider to be ‘normal’ and envious of those who we consider to be ‘genius’, the temptation will be to find ways to advance ourselves as part of a celebrity- and self-obsessed culture. We may be intolerant of those that do not meet some neurological standards (because they are a burden), or envious of those whose mental capacities (and the resulting opportunities and resources) outstrip our own. As a result many will look for whatever means they can find to advance themselves and enhance their own capabilities, all the while justifying and rationalizing this narcissism driven process. This is very much tied to the broader issue of biological enhancement and augmentation. It also influences the manner in which we think about what is normal/acceptable, and what is abnormal/pathological/unacceptable.

6. Neuro-Normalcy. As we begin to understand the brain more completely and we see how its structure and function influence our cognitive capacities, behavioral tendencies, personality, and moral character, the temptation will be to use this knowledge to craft and influence the type of people we want to become. Building on the potential of Neuro-Manipulation, the temptation will be in the refusal to settle for getting people to do what we want them to do, and in the demand to make them into who we want them to be. When the bell curve is replaced by a singular profile, much of the variability and beauty and that variability in cognitive, behavioral, and human variation will be lost.

7. Neuro-Privilege. Our final Neuro-Temptation. Who will have access to the resources, and who will determine how the benefits of these technologies and procedures are distributed? In a capitalist, individualist culture that works on supply and demand, will these benefits be available to all? How will they be resourced? Will these advances be available to those who can afford them, and may (in fact) actually have less of a legitimate/real need for them? Consider the current situation with respect to access to medical care. Is there any expectation that enhancement resources will be any different?

In closing, I would like to say that I think there is much good that can come from the advances in neuroscience we have seen in the past few decades. The primary issue in raising these seven Neuro-Temptations is not to reject all of this research, but to be cautious and to recognize the manner in which it can be easily misused. It is also important to understand and appreciate the underlying issues and assumptions that may be glossed over because in the process.

As Christians, how do we ask these deeper metaphysical and philosophical questions and look to a theologically informed and nuanced risk bonds to these Neuro-Temptations? These temptations can be opportunities for us to reflect on how God would prefer that we respond and act. And so, here are some of the ways we might respond to these temptations.

In response to Neuro-Essentialism, perhaps we should see ourselves as more than “just a brain” and appreciate our entire creative nature.

In response to Neuro-Manipulation, perhaps we should see human beings as having inherent dignity, not to be manipulated.

In response to Neuro-Divination, perhaps we should not be so fearful and preoccupied with the future that we miss how God sustains us and is sovereign—ultimately in control.

In response to Neuro-Absolution, perhaps we can recognize our own sinful nature, and appropriately accept responsibility for our failures, and see the beauty of the Gospel revealed in the life, death, and sacrifice of Christ.

In response to Neuro-Narcissism, perhaps we could be less proud or envious of others, and be thankful for the ways that we have been blessed.

In response to Neuro-Normalcy, perhaps we can be less concerned about engineering humanity, and more concerned with cultivating maturity and faithfulness.

And in response to Neuro-Privilege, perhaps we ought to be less concerned about advancing ourselves, and more concerned about caring for the widows and the orphans.

Asking the question, “How does neuroscience influence our faith?” is a good thing to do. But the point of this exercise in identifying the Seven Deadly Neuro-Temptations is to guide us in also asking how our faith influences the way we use our neuroscience.