If the heart is a pump, the liver is a strainer, and the stomach is a composter, then is it fair to say that the brain is a computer?
Neurobiology, wrote Jerry Coyne, a professor of biology at the University of Chicago, tells us that “our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output.” We don’t create with our minds, we don’t change or grow, we merely process information and spit out predictable results. “Although we feel that we’re characters in the play of our lives,” Coyne continues, “in reality we’re puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics.”
Many a science fiction scenario has taken this premise to its next logical step. What if some latter-day Dr. Frankenstein devised a way to reprogram us, to alter our minds so that we remember things that never happened—so that we believe whatever he wants us to and obey whatever diabolical commands he issues?
A recent study by MIT scientists, “Creating a False Memory in the Hippocampus,” offers dramatic proof that false memories can be implanted in the brain, at least in a mouse’s brain. First, the researchers positioned mice that had been genetically modified so that selected neurons could be activated by a flash of light (a science fiction scenario in itself) in a benign setting. While the mice explored the environment, the scientists labeled the “memory engram bearing cells” in their hippocampuses that were activated by the experience. The next day, they placed the mice in a different environment. While light flashes reactivated the memory-bearing neurons that had been labeled the day before, the mice received an electric shock. A day later, when they were returned to the benign environment, they exhibited a strong fear reaction. Their memory wasn’t completely false—they really had received a shock—but they remembered it happening in the wrong place.
Does this mean that it’s just a matter of time before the scenario George Orwell envisioned in his novel 1984—what the Ministry of Truth accomplished with propaganda, censorship, and mass terror—can be achieved by flashing colored lights on television screens? It’s a frightening thought, but one that demands a little perspective. First of all, the ability to transfer thoughts and feelings and even experiences from one brain to another does not depend on technology. Painters and poets, philosophers and preachers, have been doing that for millennia. It’s what makes us human.
A book, for example, is a piece of hardware; language is the software that it runs on. But, although a concept like 2 + 2 = 4 means the same thing to everyone, most inputs get distorted or altered by subjectivity.
Of course, the more scientists learn about how the brain works, the better they’ll be at manipulating it. Though the scientists behind the mouse experiment have good intentions (“it’s not because we want to implant or ‘incept’ some false experience into the human mind,” Susumu Tonegawa, one of the study’s authors, told the MIT Technology Review, referring to the movie Inception, “but because it could be useful, eventually, to develop methods to reduce cognitive abnormalities associated with psychiatric diseases, such as the delusions experienced by patients with schizophrenia”), the implications of their work are disquieting.
The idea that we are meat puppets runs counter to some of our most deeply held ideas about human dignity, not to mention the possibility of transcendence or redemption. But if the enigmas behind the workings of the body and mind are gradually being dispelled, the mysteries of ontology—of being itself—are as impenetrable as ever. We might know more about the processes that convert inputs into outputs, but their inherent nature or essence—the whatness of them—is as various as all of humanity.
Here’s a thought experiment that won’t require you to hurt any mice: Imagine that you can give Martin Luther King Jr., Martin Luther, Martin Lawrence, and Lawrence of Arabia copies of Coyne’s essay to read. Then imagine that each of them fills out a questionnaire about the meaning of life. Same information, same questions. Their answers, however, will be very different. True, they might be the inevitable products of their genes and experiences, but that’s just another way of saying that they’ll all be different and unique.