Podium: Our future could be just too much fun

Taken from the Richard Dimbleby Lecture given by the Director of the Royal Institution and professor of pharmacology
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The Independent Culture
THE COMING of a new century throws into sharp focus the age-old question: "What am I doing with my life?" Traditionally, science has had little truck with inner feelings and outpourings of emotion - facts of life traditionally ring-fenced by the arts - but I want to suggest that, for the first time, science, and more specifically neuroscience, could challenge that status quo. We might also have to face up to some difficult questions, redefining personal responsibility and even personal identity.

What are the benefits of having a brain? What does a brain do other than act as a bank for facts? Surely it allows us to have understanding. Understanding occurs when we can appreciate a fact in the light of what we have learned previously. The facts that people have at their disposal may be the same, but their understanding of them will be different.

One of the problems in the rise of information technology is that it is just that: information. The danger may lie not so much in the technology itself but in the risk that we could mistake the acquisition of facts for the attainment of "understanding".

Today, we approach the brain not just from the outside, via the senses, but from deep within us, too. Molecular biologists have already discovered the rogue gene for certain diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and the disorder of movement known as Huntington's chorea. However, these remarkable advances can beguile some into thinking that there is a single gene "for" almost anything. Indeed some might even see it as just a matter of time before the gene "for", say, shyness, good cooking or good motherhood need only be tweaked a fraction to produce the perfect person.

Silicon-carbon interchanges cannot account for an individual mind, and neither can genes on their own. Eventually, those suffering from genetic conditions will benefit enormously from identification of the relevant gene, followed by appropriate "gene therapy". The problem is that if people hope to tweak their genes to make them better people, they may not be selectively targeting a particular behaviour or trait.

And, in the case of Huntington's chorea, the movement impairments do not usually occur until middle age. Therefore, is this not the start of prescribing only perfect individuals, destined to live a long and perfect life? I can see no clear line, no Rubicon, between an acceptable disease and an unacceptable one, between a physical or mental trait that is merely undesirable and one that threatens physical or mental well-being.

There is a further way in which we can look at the brain - in which we will eventually be able to see it changing all the time. Consciousness entails a shifting from one moment to another, where each fleeting experience is unique. I would like to suggest that the more we experience strong sensual, sensational moments, the more we relinquish, just for the moment, our individuality: we "let ourselves go".

With increased leisure time, greater availability of drugs and more modification to our senses all awaiting us in the coming century, the future could be just too much fun. If facts alone are futile without the ability to use imagination and translate them into understanding the only recourse may be to stay on the sensual kicks of the moment.

We may be set on a course for a literally sensational life, where we shall be purely hedonistic, pursuing a life of unadulterated fun. Surely I'm being a Calvinist - why, for most of us, is living for the moment so bad? Well, we have never simply craved fun. Look at the mega-rich, who could be sipping cocktails on a yacht but are chasing power, with all the hard work that entails. Throughout civilisation, human beings have wanted to become individuals, to impose their retaliatory mark on the world, to develop their minds.

As we face a future that may standardise the individual, not just genetically but by an IT-dominated environment - surely we should have, as a priority, the need to retain and celebrate our individuality.

The lecture will be shown in its entirety tonight on BBC1 at 10.50pm