Norway to the future
Thursday, April 22, 2004
"One short-term memory booster please." "Will that be pill or implant, sir?"
With brain implants on their way, it is good to see that scientists are discussing the ethics of boosting brainpower with drugs. We already have and employ several chemicals to affect our brains, from pills which affect our pain threshold, Prozac and its numerous off-shoots, and as the article mentions, Ritalin. Coffee, cigarettes and wine may increase your brainpower, yet are socially accepted. "[H]ow is taking a drug any different?" the article asks. Why stop with drugs, I say.

In what way would a physical implant affect us as persons? Most people will agree that people on pain killers or Ritalin are the same person, albeit a bit better suited to function in our world. Prozac is coming close to being a fad, you probably know someone who currently takes or has taken mood-altering pills (maybe you take them yourself). Is the person a different person than before? By different, I do not just mean that they are acting differently, I mean are they the same person. I believe that for the vast majority, the answer is yes (if you have taken or are currently taking mood enhancers, do you consider yourself to be yourself?).

Chemicals can be scary. They can be volatile. They can cause adverse effects. Still, we consider that the upsides of drugs larger than the eventual downsides. Being addicted to branded pills (not counting the various pseudo-brands of, say, E) is the only socially acceptable way to be a drug addict in today's society. I will not go into the debate on the ethical sides of being allowed to feel better as long as the pill is produced by a respected pharmaceuticals company as opposed to in secret labs in The Netherlands, let's just say that I am very sceptical towards putting chemicals into my body- that includes the mildest painkillers.

Often, doctors do not even know why a drug works the way it does. As an example, beta blockers are supposed to increase blood pressure and heart rate, while they work in the exactly opposite way on heart attack victims. Same, goes for Ritalin, I wonder who first thought of giving that hyperactive kid some speed to calm down. Using electronic implants that work on a limited area of the brain, doing what it is supposed to do, and nothing more, may be a better way to avoid adverse effects than by pouring your body full of molecules that are free to wander around the blood stream, connecting to whatever is possible, affecting the complex system being a human body. As with any complex system, changing one of the inputs -- be it by drugs or electronics -- is dangerous, as the butterfly effect can set things in motion that no one had thought of. Just imagine what our most used "explant" -- the device that we are now addicted to as it removes the need to be physically in the same place to communicate -- the mobile phone, might do to our brains in the long term.

With neuroscience research progressing day by day, we learn more about the inner workings of our brain, in more detail than ever. Electronic implants are already in use for therapeutic reasons, so the parallel to therapeutic drugs is there, implants are just some years (but not many) further down the road. This requires not only the researchers, but also each and every one of us, to take a stand on what we feel is acceptable and ethically correct. For me, the method used is more of a second nature, except that I am risk-adverse enough not to risk my sanity by using chemicals. Looking at the mother in Requiem for a dream, becoming a cyborg seems to me to be a better alternative.

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