Up until recently, hacking was a term used for the invasion of the internal working space of a computer or some other modern device by certain humans for purposes of control and manipulation. It was done to go against the interests of the owner of the computer. But now there is a new series of meanings to the word hacking, and it is a series of meanings that has supposedly positive connotations. I’m talking about brain hacking which is used in different ways. In one sense, it simply refers to the ongoing habit-forming connection that is formed between humans and their smartphones and computers. This broad connection allows smartphones and computers to impact the very way that people think. Another meaning refers to a more focused connection between people and a particular device that sends stimuli to the brain to help people learn faster. Still another device gives people feedback about their brain activity to help people meditate better.
Depending on where the brain is stimulated by these new devices, one can influence many different mental functions and can even influence emotional states like depression. I imagine that, if it isn’t already being done, inhibiting stimulation may be used to control manic states in people. In addition, the effect of this electric brain stimulation can be magnified if we implant receptor chips in the brain. For sure, people will never ever be the same again, if and when such stimulation becomes commonplace, with or without chips. Getting ongoing fixes of electrical stimulation to their brains, people should be able to maintain a high level of cognitive performance indefinitely as well as maintain a certain amount of emotional balance.
Now this stimulation is certainly not experienced as the kind of abrasive jolt that is found in people who undergo electric shock therapy for severe mental illness. But neither is it a flowing blendable continual stimulus with a gradual cumulative effect that is going to leave the integrity of a person’s sense of self totally intact. There is something very troubling about such an aggressive focused intervention in the human brain. Whatever such an intervention might do for specific sectors of the brain and for specific aspects of human thought and emotions, one can definitely be concerned about whether such tinkering will damage the natural coherence of the human sense of self. It seems to me that there is a parallel between this kind of intervention in human functioning and the effects of the intervention of cosmetic surgery on human physical structure. Most of the time the effects of cosmetic surgery seem to damage the natural flowing coherence of a person’s physical presentation. The breasts come out too large; the skin comes out too taut. The intervention creates a result that seems to be a little out of balance. In the same way, augmenting cognition or diminishing depression through defined discrete focused streams of electrical stimulation will create an off-balance personality composition or configuration, where the changed parts of a person’s thinking will no longer exactly fit with the unaffected parts. This stands in contrast to less interventional approaches like stimulation from enriching life situations in the external world for greater cognitive and emotional awareness as well as healing life situations like good psychotherapy and building healthy support systems for an effective approach to dealing with emotional problems.
And what will prevent such sessions with electric stimulation from becoming habit forming – even an addiction. “Oh, I need to write a term paper tonight for my class in Shakespeare. I think I’ll go down to the school laboratory to get some electric stimulation for the part of my brain that deals with analysis and conceptual thinking. Then my brain will become super-charged, I’ll write a terrific term paper, and I’ll get an A for the course.” The real question is whether a person receiving this electric stimulation is the same person before and after the stimulation. We know that the person is going to be significantly affected by the electric stimulation, or else he wouldn’t use it. But is he also somehow fundamentally changed by allowing such a strong intervention in the very core of who he is? Will he begin to need it to function properly? Will he become an electric stimulus addict? And will the electric stimulation change him in other ways distinct from being addicted.
Will the person become so changed at the core of who he is that his organic imprints are no longer the imprints of who he was before the electric stimulation. So the original core of who he is will no longer be able to make and preserve his imprints and create a surrogate immortality to prepare for death.
Using another metaphor, becoming super-charged for cognitive activity will give a person a super strong external mental definition, much like steroids build a person up with muscle and give him a strong external physical definition. But steroids lead to a long-term deterioration of physical health, a loss of physical coherence. The short term road to body development – steroids – becomes the agent that destroys the long-term state of a person’s physical health. And what if electrical stimulation leads to a short-term sharpened mental definition from cognitive activity, but leads to a long-term fragmentation of a person’s sense of self.
A dependency on a non-organic source for a person to function well but also a fragmentation of the sense of self. Is this a trade-off worth having in order to get a mental fix and a heightened mental awareness? And does one want to depend on electric stimuli to have a sensation of emotional well-being? Of course, many people already depend on anti-depressant pills to deal with the external symptoms of depression. But somehow the electric stimuli seem to be even more intensely invasive. And just as anti-depressants give a person an artificial overly-defined overly-together personality, what will happen with an ongoing use of electric stimulation for this purpose?
The most common usage of hacking has been associated with the unwanted aggressive penetration of our computers by an unfriendly source for purposes related to anything from mischief to crime. In the most recent usages of hacking, we are penetrating our brain supposedly for friendly supportive purposes. But what if some of the effects of this penetration are even more destructive to human life than those connected to computer hacking? What if our human hacking has uncontrollable unforeseeable results that damage our brains, an even more serious concern for humans than the other kind of hacking that damages computers? This is what we have to concern ourselves with in connection to this latest assault on the coherence of the human sense of self.
© 2017 Laurence Mesirow