Our sense of self is one of the deepest and seemingly immobile expressions of brain activity. If something as innocuous as a magnetic field can change it then, who are we, really?
At some time during our toddler years, we start to understand that we’re a distinct person with free will and a constant internal monologue, distinct from everyone else around us, and (unless we’re struck with a neurodegenerative disease) our sense of self is the bedrock upon which we interact with the world for the rest of our lives.
But the sense of who we are, is the result of neural activity, no different from less abstruse aspects of our personalities like whether we like broccoli or not. Deeper, self-referential philosophy about who we are might recruit more mental maps than the simpler stuff, but it’s all still just bioelectric sparks in the synaptic void.
Now imagine we could somehow isolate or read those neurological impulses that make up the dream you had last night, the memory of your first pet, or your feelings for your spouse, and even affect them.
In fact scientists already have — albeit in very basic terms. In 2015 researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke implanted a remote-controlled device into the brains of mice that delivers drugs and can shine a light source on individual neurons. The technology could not only reveal neural circuits very precisely, it lets the scientists determine the path the mouse walked by — to some extent — controlling its behavior by turning neurons “on” and “off” at will using the light source.
Back in 2010, headlines were made by an even more sensational experiment when scientists at MIT induced mild electrical currents in the scalps of subjects using a technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The currents slightly disrupted a brain region called the right temporo-parietal junction not enough to destabilize the subjects’ sense of their personality — but when tested on their moral understanding of other people’s intentions, they found their moral reasoning impaired.
Changing Who You Are
If such technology is possible, what else might we use it to alter? Could every aspect of our sense of identity — from our moral beliefs to our love of our families — be simply zapped by some machine, changing us into a fundamentally different person from the one we woke up as?
Dr. James Giordano is a professor of neurology and biochemistry and chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at Washington D.C.’s Georgetown University Medical Center, and says technologies like TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) and TES (transcranial electrical stimulation) can certainly affect patterns of node and network activity of our brains. “[These technologies] can induce ‘back and collateral propagation’ effects to alter the activity of linked brain networks that are involved in a number of cognitive and behavioral functions.”
However, Giordano adds that the tools we have today tend to modulate activity of neuron networks rather than switch them on or off, or generate them. “The analogy is that they function more like a dimmer switch to ‘adjust,’ increasing or decreasing neurological nodes and networks that are in a particular activity state.” In other words (thankfully so, many might think) that means we don’t have the technology to make you think of a boat when asked to picture a dog, make you a believer after a lifetime of atheism, or convince you that killing is a good way to settle a dispute with a neighbor.
“Use of [these technologies] can affect the ‘disposition’ to visual imagery, or be clearer in our interpretation of certain visual images, but not to imagine a specific object or event,” Giordano says. “That said, use of TMS can make us somewhat more susceptible to certain patterns of thought and emotion, and perhaps increase suggestibility. But current forms of transcranial neuromodulation can’t be used to completely alter existing beliefs or moral convictions or implant ideas.”
What The Self Is Made Of
But the very fact that precepts like moral judgment are subject to manipulation by external forces says something interesting about our sense of self. We tend to think of the more arbitrary mental characteristics, like preferences for food or knowing the way to the supermarket to buy it, as being less pivotal to our innermost nature. Religious beliefs or our connection to family and friends — the stuff that makes us truly ourselves — feels much more deep-seated and harder to budge, so it must be made up of more neurons or more complicated neural maps (and therefore hard to manipulate with technology like TMS or TES) — mustn’t it?
“To some extent,” Giordano agrees. “This centers on what brain scientist Greg Berns has termed ‘sacred values and beliefs.’ It seems that certain cognition represent fortified patterns of neurological activity that have been developed and strengthened over time, and as a consequence of experience. They tend to be pretty durable, likely because they involve a number of convergent and co-active neural nodes and networks. But while they’re durable and relatively stable they can, in fact, be modified.”
But as Dr. Ed Boyden points out, we’re still too far from knowing the ins and outs of how the brain really works to affect our personality that deeply. Currently head of MIT’s Synthetic Neurobiology Group, and associate professor of the MIT Media Lab, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the departments of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences, Boyden was one of the pioneers of using light to activate neurons. “We lack a good understanding of how the brain represents and computes information,” he says. “Right now we don’t know how thoughts, emotions, and memories are represented in the brain.” Besides that, Boyden points out that if we’re talking about neurons and neural maps changing, the idea that we’re the same person through our whole lives is an illusion of consciousness anyway.