Science: UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Brave New Minds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AS THE DOME rises in Greenwich, speculation about its future contents, not to mention the future itself, is ever more hectic. But in the awe over the newness of the shape of society, culture, technology, health, gadgets, architecture and ecosphere, one factor has been assumed to remain as a constant: our minds. In the zeal of futurology, it seems to be assumed that it is still the same 30,000-year-old mind-set, complete with mystifying, atavistic urges and passions that will have our successors blundering around in wonderland. But I would argue that for the first time in 30,000 years our brains, and therefore our minds, are likely targets for dramatic make-overs. A hi-tech society with a propensity for manipulating both silicon and carbon must have an impact on how, deep down, we will think, feel, and interact with the outside world.

Virtual reality is already with us; it is only a matter of time before it is as commonplace as television and PCs. People will perhaps be able to buy VR helmets, complete with smell and touch as well as sound and vision. Much of the day will be spent in the virtual rather than the real world. This scenario has many debatable implications, such as our segregation from the rest of the animal kingdom, and the demise of basic, spontaneous relationships.

The nature-nurture package as it now applies to the brain might be dramatically changed as a result of extensive genetic engineering. Although it is unlikely that manipulation of one gene will lead to a sublimation or creation of a corresponding, wholesale feature in our personality, such biological wizardry, combined with an environment heavily controlled by VR and perceptual systems marinated in drugs, may cut down on the seeming random element underlying individuality.

If experience can be controlled and genetic dispositions un- packed, then it might seem that we would have a society freed from mental illness. Would the more uniform New Mind experience a standardised brand of happiness? Or could there be a new "dysfunctional" condition where people crave to be different, as Huxley envisaged over the hypothetical feel-good drug, soma. But then if a brain was already severely standardised, would such a desire imply that the brain in question would a priori, have had to be deviated in some way? But all nature and nurture doors to such individuality, unlike in Huxley's version, would have been slammed ...

Another feature of the New Mind might be that it encompassed a much longer life. Freezing of the body is, of course, offering hope of immortality to some. On the other hand, current techniques would mean that all brain cells were irrevocably destroyed. But brain cells can be inactivated, yet not killed, if kept at about four degrees. Perhaps a person could decide when they wished to have bouts of life throughout different centuries. Imagine - a society where everyone is living phasically and out of phase with each other: they would have the mentality not of a cohesive culture, but a pot-pourri of perspectives according to the different eras so far experienced.

Already BT is claiming that it will be possible to download a memory. But what is a memory? In brain terms, memory of a simple fact can be distinguished from a memory of an event. In the future we will know more about what is entailed in the one-off specific memory of an event, and explore the improbability of it being encoded as a discrete amount of information. Although facts will be accessed with increasingly less recourse to memory, it is unlikely that we will be able to be downloaded as a complete, holistic mind. Memories depend on other memories to have the "meaning" that they have for an individual brain. They also depend on emotion which, in turn, relies on interaction with a complete body. The brain functions as an integral part of the incessant communication with the fight/flight, hormonal and immune systems.

As we stroll inside a Dome that celebrates the millennium to come, it might be timely to ponder multi-disciplinary exhibits from neuroscience, psychology and even philosophers, that address the mind of the future - the reality of erstwhile fiction.