The Frontal Cortex

Brain Augmentation

Over at the MIT Tech Review website, neuroscientist Ed Boyden argues for brain augmentation:

It’s arguably time for a discipline to emerge around the idea of human augmentation. At the MIT Media Lab, we are beginning to search for principles that govern the use of technology to augment human abilities–that make the idea of normal obsolete…

One argument in favor of going for optimality, and forgetting about normal, is that it’s becoming harder and harder to know what is normal. For example, it’s been demonstrated that two-thirds of all people have at least one copy of a DNA sequence that makes them more likely to become depressed after a stressful life event. The rest of all people, a minority of one-third, are more resilient to stress than the other two-thirds are. Thus, it could be argued that becoming depressed in response to stress is the normal state.

I agree that the complexity and diversity of biology make it very difficult to define “normal”. (It’s the equivalent of defining “authenticity” in music.) So I’m with Professor Boyd on that point. But I fail to see how the absence of clear norms make a compelling case for human augmentation. Instead, I believe the case of brain augmentation should be based on one, and one variable only: it is good for us? This question isn’t easy to answer, but I believe the debate should be entirely focused on the efficacy of the possible treatment. We should ground our ethics in pragmatics. After all, we’ve been augmenting our brains for decades – reading this post is a subtle form of brain augmentation – so I don’t believe there’s any bright line separating the brain microchips of the future from the (largely ineffective) synaptic drugs of today. The basic question should stay the same: does this intervention work? What are the side-effects? And are they worse than the cure? The history of scientific brain augmentations should make us skeptical that there is a plethora of panaceas around the corner.

Hat Tip: Neurophilosophy


  1. #1 Derek James
    October 1, 2007

    Yep…the PC and the internet have been augmenting our brains for a while now. If he’s talking about more direct methods that augment the brain, like inserting computer chips or modifying our genes, this sounds like jumping the gun. We don’t nearly understand the brain well enough to start trying to enhance it.

  2. #2 Jorge Gajardo Rojas
    October 1, 2007

    The point is to know that if a quantitative aumenting of brain is more relevant that better and more funtion of brain.Is not the size,is who make brains work better.

  3. #3 amybuilds
    October 1, 2007

    I think it is always good to start a conversation. I guess I always thought that brain augmentation would be about a cure. I have a blind friend with retinitis pigmentosa, we await the chip that will help him see with great anticipation. Is this what they mean by augmentation? Or is augmentation going to help me figure out a 15% tip faster?

    I must admit that the idea of having a chip inserted in my brain makes me nauseous. I’m physically repelled by the very idea and I can’t help thinking about “Big Brother” science fiction either. Will someone be able to track me like a stolen car after this?

    And then there is the definition of normal, some of us have been fighting it all our lives. At one time it wasn’t normal for women to work in science or math. Normal isn’t static. What a tragedy it would be to start “normalizing” people at any given moment in time.

  4. #4 breton
    October 1, 2007

    Not to nitpick, but we’ve been augmenting our brains for longer than just the decades that we’ve had computers & the intertubes. Prior to that, we would put reference information into books, and prior to we’d paint it on walls, and alll the while we’ve talked to other humans, an excellent augmentation for a single brain.

    As for the “direct” augmentation Boyden mentions, I think your questions, especially “what are the side effects” are extremely important. Borges wrote a short story, “Funes, the memorious” that explores the problems associated with an augmented memory in particular and while fictional, it is a worthy philosophical question. I encourage everyone to read it. His point, in a nutshell, is that the “failings” of human brains are potentially part and parcel of the successes of human brains.

  5. #5 Epistaxis
    October 1, 2007

    I agree that the complexity and diversity of biology make it very difficult to define “normal”.

    Geneticists don’t even bother – we just say everyone is either one variant or another variant. “Normal” isn’t a useful enough term in human genetics to be worth defining. The only time we ever do that is in experimental genetics, when we refer to “wild-type” strains of lab organisms, but the WT usually just means the unmodified strain that’s normally used in the lab, which is typically very different from what you might find in the wild.

    It’s a shame the author didn’t get that. It’s crucial to the augmentation discussion to know whether or not “normal” exists.

  6. #6 oyun
    January 17, 2008

    Adnan Oktar, ?stanbul 2. A??r Ceza Mahkemesi’ne dilekçesini sundu. Yasal ?artlar? bulunmad???n? iddia etti?i yurt d???na ç?k?? yasa??n?n kald?r?lmas?n? isteyen Adnan Oktar,

  7. #7 colin nixon
    August 2, 2009

    iff? enough of US. have brain, augmentation, then it would EVENTUALLY BECOME, NORMALL?

  8. #8 mike fare
    October 18, 2011

    the idea of augmentation of the human brain is a controversy that we all should come to terms with the fact that it will arise whether or not we see it morally right or humane or safe. while we have been using subtle forms of mental augmentation, these are passive forms of augmentation that no person would consider socially unacceptable and posses no threat to your body. direct augmentation techniques such as nano technology implanted into your brain and eventually fully replacing your brain with a nano hardware computer is a much different form of augmentation and could not even be compared to brain augmentation through reading a book or hearing a story. the idea of living forever through multiple host bodys simply because your brain is capable of living much longer then normal because it is hardware though is a very touchy subject. some would say that not being able to die would take away one of the very few things that would make us human. and augmentation is a slipery slope, first you cant see so well so you have your eyes augmented to perfect clarity, then you decide your body is to weak so you slowly replace your arms and legs with nano prosthetics, then comes the organs in your chest and your spine then the only truley human thing left of you would be your brain which would also slowly be replaced by constant replicating nano bots. you now have a fully augmented non human body and a hardware brain and no part of your former self is left what would you be then. while it is a controversial future it is an unavoidable one and while augmentation of the human brain and body would save many many lives, what cost would it come at?

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