The New Yorker
Originally posted 19 Apr 21
Here are two excerpts:
Today, at least two hundred thousand people worldwide, suffering from a wide range of conditions, live with a neural implant of some kind. In recent years, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Bryan Johnson, the founder of the payment-processing company Braintree, all announced neurotechnology projects for restoring or even enhancing human abilities. As we enter this new era of extra-human intelligence, it’s becoming apparent that many people develop an intense relationship with their device, often with profound effects on their sense of identity. These effects, though still little studied, are emerging as crucial to a treatment’s success.
The human brain is a small electrical device of super-galactic complexity. It contains an estimated hundred billion neurons, with many more links between them than there are stars in the Milky Way. Each neuron works by passing an electrical charge along its length, causing neurotransmitters to leap to the next neuron, which ignites in turn, usually in concert with many thousands of others. Somehow, human intelligence emerges from this constant, thrilling choreography. How it happens remains an almost total mystery, but it has become clear that neural technologies will be able to synch with the brain only if they learn the steps of this dance.
For the great majority of patients, deep-brain stimulation was beneficial and life-changing, but there were occasional reports of strange behavioral reactions, such as hypomania and hypersexuality. Then, in 2006, a French team published a study about the unexpected consequences of otherwise successful implantations. Two years after a brain implant, sixty-five per cent of patients had a breakdown in their marriages or relationships, and sixty-four per cent wanted to leave their careers. Their intellect and their levels of anxiety and depression were the same as before, or, in the case of anxiety, had even improved, but they seemed to experience a fundamental estrangement from themselves. One felt like an electronic doll. Another said he felt like RoboCop, under remote control.
Gilbert describes himself as “an applied eliminativist.” He doesn’t believe in a soul, or a mind, at least as we normally think of them, and he strongly questions whether there is a thing you could call a self. He suspected that people whose marriages broke down had built their identities and their relationships around their pathologies. When those were removed, the relationships no longer worked. Gilbert began to interview patients. He used standardized questionnaires, a procedure that is methodologically vital for making dependable comparisons, but soon he came to feel that something about this unprecedented human experience was lost when individual stories were left out. The effects he was studying were inextricable from his subjects’ identities, even though those identities changed.
Many people reported that the person they were after treatment was entirely different from the one they’d been when they had only dreamed of relief from their symptoms. Some experienced an uncharacteristic buoyancy and confidence. One woman felt fifteen years younger and tried to lift a pool table, rupturing a disk in her back. One man noticed that his newfound confidence was making life hard for his wife; he was too “full-on.” Another woman became impulsive, walking ten kilometres to a psychologist’s appointment nine days after her surgery. She was unrecognizable to her family. They told her that they grieved for the old her.