Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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Narrative Perspectives: Neuroethics in books and film


Neuroethics confronts us with profound questions about human existence: What does it mean to be human?  To be the same person over time?  What does it mean to be normal?  What is the good life?  Can we tell illusion from reality?  What makes an experience or a memory authentic?  Are we really no more than our brains? Are we responsible for our actions if they are all physically caused?

While science and philosophy offer the most rigorous approaches to these questions, the literary imagination is an important source of insight as well.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for the rigorous approaches to rely, at certain junctures in their arguments, on distant extrapolations of current trends or assertions about which counterfactuals are or are not plausible.  As long as we are conjuring imaginary scenarios – for example, by projecting that a mood-enhanced population might become emotionally shallow, or that humans with sufficiently augmented cyborg brains might consider themselves a new species – we might as well draw upon the extrapolations and counterfactuals created by real authors of fiction!  The short stories, novels and films listed here contain interesting insights on the many ways in which our growing understanding of the brain, and our advancing ability to manipulate it, could alter the future of humanity.

When brain modification has been featured in books and film, the scenarios have generally been dystopian.  Beginning with Aldous Huxley’s (1932) Brave New World, in which a totalitarian state controls its citizens by manipulating brain development and brain chemistry, through the current genres of Cyberpunk (e.g., the Matrix) and Biopunk (e.g., Gattaca), we have seen mainly the dark side of neurotechnology.  Judging from fictional portrayals, the idea of neurotechnology seems much more threatening than the idea of space travel, an earlier sci fi mainstay.  This is not all that surprising.  Our brains are us.  Exile me to another star system and my life may be rough, but reprogram my brain and I’m not even sure whose life it is.

Of course, “yesterday’s science fiction is today’s science fact” is a cliché, and often wrong to boot.  Most of the scenarios envisioned by science fiction authors have never eventuated, often for good reasons involving physical laws that cannot be violated!  But some imagined technologies have been realized many decades after their appearance in a work of science fiction, and this teaches us something:  What is pure fiction at one point in time – unrealistic, far out, silly – can be reality a generation or two later.  Some of the readers of this website were alive when the idea of a “test tube baby” was so far beyond the capabilities of medicine as to be purely science fiction.  Other readers were conceived by in vitro fertilization.

So, explore the books and movies listed here for the enjoyment they offer as well as the insights they may contain, and please contact us with additional suggestions for inclusion!

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