Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Altering the components of self

So, as previously discussed, we've learned much about the brain and the mind that it generates from the study of our genes as well as observations of living brains in action over the past two decades. Additionally, fields such as neuroanthropology, molecular anthropology, and biological anthropology have enjoyed a number of successes in tracing out humankind's intertwined physical and behavioral development. Meanwhile research in development psychology has done much to demarcate the bounds of innate knowledge and inborn predispositions.

As we discover more about about the biological roots of personality and society, we learn more about the feedback cycle between these components--of how while the brain has inbuilt primate properties, our organ of thought is also built to be modified to a degree by external influences such as language and culture. Finally, even as we continue to discover the biological building blocks of the self and its relationship to society, we are developing technologies to alter these roots of the mind.

All of which opens up numerous storytelling possibilities.

Our brains contain three different memory systems that can be modified. The most interesting--for me--is the two-part declarative memory. The older part of this system is the episodic, which handles the recall of situations that an individual has experienced. The more recent is the semantic memory, which holds information is independent of the context that it was learned in. The semantic half of the declarative memory allows us to create abstract meanings, as it gives us the ability us to remember the commonalities of multiple situations and thus to discover underlying factors and casual relationships.

Of more relevance to individual personalities is emotive mechanism whereby the brain encodes long-term episodic memories. The stronger the emotion, the more likely the hippocampus is to write short-term situational awareness into long-term recall. Modification of this process would change the nature of memory and a persons remembrance of their life, changing their outlook on the world. What if we could make memory much more selective? What if nature has already made memory self-serving to a large degree, and we could modify it to be more emotionally objective or empirical?

We appear to have an emotional network shaped by the short-term priorities of a world in which food was scarce, and the next season could bring feast or famine. The majority of our species finds survival, athletic, and social skill sets and activities far more interesting that abstract reasoning skills such as mathematics, accounting, and the scientific process. We have such terrible long-term discipline that cultures around the world must seek to chide and chivvy us to place our long-range priorities before our much more appealing prospects for short-term gratification.

What if we could make math as innately appealing as sports, adventure, or combat. What if we could make long-term gratification as emotionally attractive as instant satisfaction?

Sexual orientation appears to be heavily influenced by exposure to androgen hormones while in the womb. Imagine if we could make similar changes later in life. What if individuals could reassign their orientation? What if others could force them to change their orientation?

What if we could make everyone a synesthete, linking sense such as sight and hearing to produce a rich cross-sensory experiences that have so far been the privilege of a tiny few?

And then there are the savant talents: Can we extend eidetic memory, super-human math calculation, and innate artistic talents to all of humanity via magnetic stimulation of the brain or gene engineering. What are the ethics of eliminating the the varieties of mental retardation common in males and associated with having only a single active copy of the x-chromosome. What would be the morality of eliminating Downs Syndrome.

The list goes on and on of all that we might alter about ourselves. Oddly enough, science fiction writers seem to have been reluctant discussing changing human nature in the context of human evolution. Or for that matter, the existence of a human nature rooted in genes, innate nuerobiological structures, and primate brains of the past.

Next up: The biological paradigm of the mind in science fiction (yes, this time for real!)

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