Brave New World of fMRI
Most of us from time to time will admit to feeling as though the world is spinning out of control with no end in sight. Chemistry and technology have extended our lives, expanded opportunities for material gain, and opened us up to a world of ideas and expression delivered at the speed of light. At the same time these things also have strained our values and turned the private and personal into the public and political. But just as we struggle with the moral, ethical, and social challenges of this new world, we can thank science once again for authorizing a new perspective, one that will help us eliminate complications caused by values and institutions we no longer need.
I’ll bypass the history of medical and psychological applications and fast-forward to the Holy Grail of neuroscience: knowing what people are really thinking—mind reading. Advances made in the study of the brain will enable us to understand the nature of subjectivity. The mapping of our thought processes through functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) could reconcile some of our big contradictions. This technology is already revealing things about us that we wouldn’t willingly share with others or are not aware of ourselves. It already tells us what regions of our brains are active in response to more and more complex stimuli.
It won’t be long before fMRI will be able to completely bypass the deceptions of language and reveal our genuine, unedited thoughts, values, and feelings. Undoubtedly this access to the self will modify our present understanding of morality and ethics. A more objective reality will prevail, and a new truth will level the playing field. There will be no more issues of trust and control. Private thoughts will be a thing of the past.
Have some fun. Google the term “brain scan” and you’ll see what I mean. At the risk of attempting to predict the future, the whole idea is so novel that I haven’t gotten past my own imagination as far as the consequences. All I can see is positive stuff happening. Let me, therefore, head off into science fiction and speculate on some of the fun changes I foresee.
The Kiersey–Bates personality assessment will become obsolete; students will just have brain scans to evaluate aptitude for trades or professions. “Brain prints” will determine whether people can be trusted when applying for jobs. Out with the drug test, in with the brain scan!
We may learn that certain behaviors we consider taboo have an active and uninhibited life in the gray matter of most of our population. We may wind up liberating some institutions we once thought immoral and condemning some that we will discover detrimental to our well- being. For the first time we won’t be guessing, at least not the way we are now. We’ll have some solid evidence with which to answer pressing questions.
For example, what motivates someone to be a political conservative and liberal? Does the gay brain work differently than the heterosexual’s? How about the brains of men and women? If it’s all in our heads, can we solve our differences at a deeper level? Will we even have as many differences once we weed out the liars from positions of power? Is there any way to get beyond the adversarial nature of debate, and does it only hinge on honesty and altruism? How important is deception to human communication?
And what of mental health? Instead of treating addictive, depressive, and other social maladjustments after the fact, brain scans could anticipate and flag their development among the predisposed. Standardized prevention through personal or institutional models could be prescribed for such individuals. There will be less intervention by expensive drugs and more environmentally proactive responses to variations in behavior. New therapeutic strategies for all sorts of potential scenarios could be developed; ones that don’t require twelve years of medical school.
As the implications of fMRI technology come into focus, you and I will be compelled to represent ourselves authentically on a personal level (a tall order for the highest- functioning deceivers on the planet!) For the first time in history each and every one of us will have to face our motivations before we act. That’s a humbling thought. I suspect we’ll start out by screwing up a lot more than getting it right. We’re going to have to apologize and forgive each other ad nauseam, until it’s not even a conscious thought. Imagine how much faster communicating will be once all of the guilt and lies get tossed out like old underwear.
And if we still experience difficulty in an interpersonal relationship, we might head out to the counselor for “a scan” to get beyond the power struggle and to the source of a conflict. The absolute certainty of one objective truth prevailing over two subjective cases would lead to swift resolutions with no more wondering if it’s going to work, return to marital bliss, or move on to amicable divorce. And nobody’s wrong: it’s only brains doing their job protecting their subjects.
In ten years people will be purchasing mini-scanners on key chains that they can hold up to the head of anyone they are chatting with. Imagine purchasing a new car with your mini- scanner:
You: Is this offer really below wholesale?
Dealer: Uh… (red, green, blue, yellow pulsations in lower left frontal lobe.)
Imagine the elimination of so many social, economic and political institutions once corrupted by liars and deceivers. We’d have far fewer domestic problems. Leaders (and they would be real leaders) would be free to devote themselves to relieving some global problems. That’s what I was thinking of before, about what we might be able to “get our minds” around.
We’d have to give the scientists something to do with the free time on their hands. Maybe they could focus on either proving or debunking the existence of pseudoscience such as telepathy and psychic powers, and possibly revaluating others--like phrenology. For now I’ll ignore the dystopian novels of Huxley and Orwell. Instead, let me bask in my own Brave New World, where none are more equal than others.