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The Spotless Mind? Policy, Ethics and the Future of Human Intelligence
The Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future
Feb. 16
National Press Club

The Industry:
biotechnology and artificial intelligence

The Attendees:
80 brainiacs experimenting with mind-enhancing drugs

The Issues:

My Brain Made Me Do It: Neurophilosopher Patricia Smith Churchland presented a rousing crash course in neurobiology. Humans and other animals are hard-wired with brain-based values, such as raising offspring and caring about others, in order to thrive in a common group. And is free will more folk psychology than reality? Recent research indicates that our physiology compels our choices. Long before one makes a decision to act, there’s a rise in preparatory behavior signals in the cortex.

Right On: Dispatched to choose from a huge pile of pantyhose, shopper-subjects’ selections generally reflected what experts call “the position effect”—-reaching for items on one’s right side.

Grey Matters: Mayo Clinic neurology expert William Cheshire explained the competition between reason and emotion that precedes moral judgments. The brain attempts to resolve wrestling matches between the cerebral and visceral through a convergence of neural pathways to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (associated with abstract reasoning) and anterior cingulate cortex (where emotions are evoked). The paired consent is necessary from an evolutionary perspective: Acting on cold logic alone, an individual would ignore real threats signaled by fear, thus reducing chances of personal and species survival.

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Performance Anxiety: Should drugs designed to restore mental function in people with cognitive disorders be used by healthy folks to enhance intellectual abilities, refresh the mind in lieu of sleep, and gain competitive advantages at school and work? If so, do ethics demand equal access to these state-of-the-art study aids? Will they speed us to a 24-hour performance-on-demand society? Do we risk commodifying human traits? And what to do about underperformers?

Humanoid Rights: As scientists develop increasingly sophisticated robots capable of thought and sensory perception, a panelist suggested that legal rights may be sought for intelligent machines. Possible circumstances include a robot filing for an injunction to prevent itself from being disassembled.

Self-Centered: Findings that monkeys and elephants quickly recognize themselves in mirrors prove that humans are not the only animals that possess the concept of self, previously used as a key distinction among species.

Simulated Rapture: Neurochemicals are now credited with sensations common to religious rapture, which the panelist [Churchland] described as a “huge magnetic storm in the temporal lobe.” One study successfully induced such feelings via transcranial magnetic stimulation in journalists, students and Wall Street financial workers. One self-described atheist volunteered in hopes of experiencing the feeling of communing with the divine.

Selective Memory: Duquesne University political-science professor Charles T. Rubin analyzed the concept of memory erasure through film (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and literature, specifically Edward Bellamy’s Victorian tale Dr. Heidenhoff’s Process. Bellamy’s doctor sought to eradicate painful memories of a fallen woman in hope that he could receive her as a wife “fresh and virginal in heart and mind.”

Renewed Determination: Illuminating a new science-religion mash-up, Trinity International University bioethics professor C. Ben Mitchell examined the unintended revival of Calvinist predestination vis-à-vis neurobiology breakthroughs. In “Doctrine of Absolute Predestination,” 16th-century Calvin disciple Jerome Zanchius held that the smallest speck of dust was preordained. Three centuries later, philosopher John Stuart Mill observed the unpopularity of the notion that people aren’t in control of their destiny.