Brain science — neuroscience — is big business, big science and big research. Neuroscientists are offering to explain, mend and manipulate the mind. Many see no problems with this.
For example, Eric Kandel, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on memory, said: “You are your brain.”
This is an extraordinary, arid reductionism. This is the idea that you can collapse the complex phenomenon that goes on in the human mind into being simply the working of cells or molecules.
Anyone with a Marxist perspective understands that you cannot ignore the social: brains are embedded in bodies and bodies are embedded in the social order in which we grow up and live.
When you say “my brain made me do it”, you are acting as many neuroscientists do — in a reductionist way.
We don’t say “my legs walk,” we say “we walk”. It is not our brains doing the thinking, it is us, as integrated human individuals.
That is an insight that comes out of a much richer understanding of the world than neuroscience can provide by itself. There are claims that we are going to see huge medical advances through the work of neuroscience.
This will mean things like genetic tests for Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, stem cells to cure neurological disease, specially tailored drugs to solve the problems of depression, drugs to enhance performance and zap up intelligence and memory and so on.
What is being offered is happiness for all — at least to all those who aren’t in the poorest parts of the world.
There is another, more sinister, promise.
Jose Delgado wrote a book about creating a “psychocivilised society”, where each of us would be tailor-made in order to adjust us to the world around us.
That offers a range of possibilities: drugs to manipulate human behaviour, brain imaging (so called “brain fingerprinting”) so you can identify criminals, genetic predestination (the assertion that your future intelligence and role in society is locked into your genes), electro-magnetic thought control and new military technologies.
So, on the one hand we have the claims that new science is going to emerge and that we are going to be able to understand who we are as people.
And on the other hand, we have the promise to control the population through a whole range of new techniques that are being developed.
The problem is that very little is known about the ones that concern most of us — depression and schizophrenia. The pharmacological industry is pulling out of this research. None of the new drugs that have been produced are better than those of 30 years ago.
George Brown and Tirril Harris made an observation when they were working on a south London housing estate decades ago.
They said that the best predictor of depression is being a working-class woman with an unstable income and a child, living in a high-rise block. No drug is going to treat that particular problem, is it?
Many of the issues that are so enormously important to us — whether bringing up children or growing old — remain completely hidden in the biological levels.
Neuroscience is very data rich but it is extremely theory-poor.
We need to be concerned with where brain science is going.
Human-machine interfaces are certainly on the cards. These involve implanting a microchip in a person, in the hope that it might solve the problem of paraplegia or help you communicate with the outside world if you have had a stroke.
Of course, if we could repair the spinal cord or brain lesions, that is wholly desirable. But despite the great hype, many problems remain unsolved.
For instance, there is transcranial magnetic stimulation. There are minute magnetic fields around the surface of the brain.
It is possible to manipulate these fields and the magnetic processes in the brain by shooting intense currents of magnetic or microwave radiation across the brain, manipulating particular regions of the brain.
This has been used with Parkinson’s disease, but it is also under intensive investigation by the US military.
The military is resourcing a number of new techniques, including brain imaging surveillance, new psychoactive chemical weapons, and transcranial magnetic stimulation to enhance the military effectiveness of troops by using thought control.
When it comes to treating neurological disease, we are going to get better drugs. But we need to understand the causes of most of these diseases.
The pharmacological industry is never wants to ask why twice as many working-class people than middle-class people are diagnosed with schizophrenia.
It is interested in a magic molecule that can solve the problem, not in poverty or social factors.
Then there is the increase in drugs to enhance memory. These raise ethical and legal problems: should we take these drugs when preparing for examinations, for example?
What is the moral difference between buying “smart drugs” on the web, or getting your parents to pay for private coaching, or the postcode lottery in education that favours the rich? All are ethical problems, chemical or social.
Most of the genetic information predicted to produce clear-cut answers to questions has not done so.
Rather it has created a situation to redefine what is mad and what is bad.
There is a craze about whether you can detect if someone is a psychopath and likely to commit violent crime. There are scientists comparing the brains of “normal” people and murderers, to look at the difference in brain structure.
But what they don’t tell you is that the murderers being studied are people who have been in prison for several years on god-knows-what regime of drugs and under what brutality. And they are being compared with people taken off the street.
I think the diagnosis is troublesome: we don’t need to study Tony Blair or George Bush’s brains to understand the causes of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Aldous Huxley wrote a book in the 1930s called Brave New World, which envisaged a society in which there was a universal drug called Soma that you could take any time to make you happy and better.
We aren’t moving into a universal world of Soma, but into a world in which there is a huge range of psycho-chemicals and psychoactive techniques that are focused on producing a psychocivilised society.
Back in the 1960s in Oxford, there was a slogan painted on a college wall. It said: “Do not adjust your mind, the fault is in reality.”
[Abridged from a talk given at Marxism 2010, London. Steven Rose is professor of biology and neurobiology at the Open University and University of London. The talk was published at www.socialistworker.co.uk .]