October 18, 2009

Cognitive liberty and right to one's mind

We've been having a great discussion here at Sentient Developments on cognitive liberty and neurodiversity thanks to our guest blogger, Casey Rae-Hunter. Be sure to check out his recent posts, "Neuroplasticity and Coordinated Cognition: the Means of Self-Mastery?", "Neurodiversity vs. Cognitive Liberty", "Neurodiversity vs. Cognitive Liberty, Round II."

I'd now like to take a moment and address some issues as they pertain to cognitive liberty, a topic that I believe will start to carry some heavy implications in the near future.

Cognitive liberty is not just about the right to modify one's mind, emotional balance and psychological framework (for example, through anti-depressants, cognitive enhancers, psychotropic substances, etc.), it's also very much about the right to
not have one's mind altered against their will. In this sense, cognitive liberty is very closely tied to freedom of speech. A strong argument can be made that we have an equal right to freedom of thought and the sustained integrity of our subjective experiences.

Our society has a rather poor track record when it comes to respecting the validity of certain 'mind-types'. We once tried to "cure" homosexuality with conversion therapy. Today there's an effort to cure autism and Asperger's syndrome -- a development the autistic rights people have railed against. And in the future we may consider curing criminals of their anti-social or deviant behaviour -- a potentially thorny issue to be sure.

There are many shades of gray when it comes to this important issue. It's going to requiring considerable awareness and debate if we hope to get it right. Your very mind may be at stake.

Neuroethical conundrums

Forced cognitive modification is an issue that's affecting real people today.

Aspies for Freedom claims that the most common therapies for autism are exactly this; they argue that applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy and the forced suppression of stimming are unethical, dangerous and cruel, as well as aversion therapy, the use of restraints and alternative treatments like chelation. Jane Meyerding, an autistic person herself, has criticized any therapy which attempts to remove autistic behaviors which she contends are behaviors that help autistics to communicate.

As this example shows, the process of altering a certain mind-type, whether it be homosexuality or autism, can be suppressive and harsh. But does the end justify the means? If we could "cure" autistics in a safe and ethical way and introduce them to the world of neurotypicality should we do it? Many individuals in the autistic/Asperger's camp would say no, but there's clearly a large segment of the population who feel that these conditions are quite debilitating. Not an easy question to answer.

This is an issue of extreme complexity and sensitivity, particularly when considering other implications of neurological modification. Looking to the future, there will be opportunities to alter the minds of pedophiles and other criminals guilty of anti-social and harmful behaviors. Chemical castration may eventually make way to a nootropic or genetic procedure that removes tendencies deemed inappropriate or harmful by the state.

Is this an infringement of a person's cognitive liberty?

Neuroconformity vs. neurodiversity

Consider the deprogramming of individuals to help them escape the clutches of a cult. The term itself is quite revealing: notice that it's
deprogramming, not reprogramming -- a suggestion that the person is being restored to a pre-existing condition.

But what about those cases like pedophilia or autism where there is no pre-existing psychological condition for those persons, save for whatever mind-state society deems to be appropriate? This is the (potential) danger of neuroconformism, the evil flipside to neurodiversity. Without a broad sense and appreciation for alternative mind-types we run the risk of re-engineering our minds into extreme homogeneity.

Now I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't treat sociopaths in this way. What I'm saying is that we need to tread this path very, very carefully. Manipulating minds in this way will have an irrevocable impact on a person's sense of self. In a very profound way, a person's previous self may actually be destroyed and replaced by a new version.

For us Buddhists this doesn't tend to be a problem as we deny the presence of a singular and immutable self; what we can agree on, however, is that our agency in the world is heavily impacted by our genetics and environment which leads to a fairly consistent psychology -- what we call personalities and tendencies. In most cases, we tend to become attached to our personality and tendencies -- it's what we like to call our 'self.' And it's perfectly appropriate to want to retain that consistent sense of self over time.

So, if one applies a strict interpretation of cognitive liberty, a case can be made that a sociopath deserves the right to refuse a treatment that would for all intents-and-purposes replace their old self with a new one. On the other hand, a case can also be made that a sociopathic criminal has forgone their right to cognitive liberty (in essence the same argument that allows us to imprison criminals and strip them of their rights) and cannot refuse a treatment which is intended to be rehabilitative.

I am admittedly on the fence with this one. My instinct tells me that we should never alter a person's mind against their will; my common sense tells me that removing sociopathic tendencies is a good thing and ultimately beneficial to that individual. I'm going to have to ruminate over this one a bit further...

As for autistism, however, I'm a bit more more comfortable suggesting that we shouldn't force autistics into neurotypicality. At the very least we should certainly refrain from behavior therapy and other draconian tactics, but I have nothing against educating autistics on how to better engage and interact with their larger community.

And to repeat a point I made earlier, we should err on the side of neurodiversity and a strong interpretation of cognitive liberty. The right to our own minds and thoughts is a very profound one. We need to be allowed to think and emote in the way that we want; the potential for institutions or governments to start mandating to us what they consider to be "normal thinking" is clearly problematic.

So fight for your right to your mind!


ZarPaulus said...

Personally I draw the line at causing physical harm to people, themselves or others (so suicidal depression as well as violent psychosis).

Will said...

Lots of goods points, I especially like that you pointed out somewhat inhumane treatments like chemical castration could give way to similar but dramatically more humane ones. My concern is that some groups (Aspies for freedom is the strongest example here) seem to get cognitive liberty a little bit backwards. They appear to think that treatments that could, for example, "cure" a person of autism (or we could say convert an autistic person into a neurotypical one if we want to speak neutrally) are a threat to their cognitive liberty regardless of whether or not consent is involved. This seems to confuse and obscure discussion because it mixes cognitive liberty up with neurodiversity. Obviously, as Casey's posts show, this is a confusing distinction already. But saying there should be no way for people to go from aspie to normal AND normal to aspie seems to me to restrict liberty in the interests of artificially enforced diversity. If we have two acceptable (meaning not in violation of the rights of others) states, mental or otherwise, informed consenting adults should be able to choose whichever they want, regardless of which they started life in. That's just another way of restating cognitive liberty, and yet it would seem to run afoul of people opposing "cures" for autism and the like. It seems to me that some of the reason for this confusion is mixing intermediate steps with end goals. I'm not sure its exactly fair to call it a means/ends relationship; was the invention of the wheel a means to the end of inventing the automobile? But I think recognizing it as you do is really important as it gives us a clearer picture of what a world with full cognitive liberty would look like.

CS McClellan/Catana said...

"Many individuals in the autistic/Asperger's camp would say no, but there's clearly a large segment of the population who feel that these conditions are quite debilitating. Not an easy question to answer."

Actually, it's very easy to answer. If there are means by which a person could achieve something like "normality," or at least alleviation of their most debilitating problems, it should be their choice to make, without coercion. Most of the supposed division among autistics on this issue is created by by parents who are devastated by their children's disabilities, and by the media, which play up the drama. In fact, most autistics/aspies who support neurodiversity understand the problems that face the most severely affected and have no interest in refusing them whatever means will enable them to live more satisfying lives.

But we can't forget that the campaign to cure autism is closely linked to the desire to eliminate it entirely. Considering that autism may be responsible for very valuable cognitive skills, this is a dangerous path to follow, not just for autistics, but for the human race.

Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more catanya/sylvie mac. Most parents of autistic children I've talked to, high functioning or otherwise, don't care much at all about this "division" between those who want to cure autism and those who don't. They just want a good life for their kid, however that's brought about. I agree that finding a cure to autism can be confused with ending it completely, and that trying to treat it is a step down that dangerous road. But we humans take lots of dangerous steps - its how we advance. Science and technology are morality neutral, not immoral or moral, so whether a scientific advancement is "right" or "wrong" depends solely on what we do with it. The printing press (and the internet) made disseminating hate speech easier, guns make criminals more dangerous, and genetic engineering could lead to unpleasant eugenics. Our goal should be to walk the dangerous paths, but tread carefully.

Bob King said...

One of the great problems for neurodiversity proponents in general and autistic/aspies in particular is that the deficits that are pointed to are problems that are largely matters of external perception.

This is not to say that there are not very real deficits - trust me on that. But if you were to compare a list of issues that an aspie would like addressed and a list that a neurotypcal person looking at that (adult) apsie from outside would like addressed, there might be surprisingly little in common.

The genuine needs of an aspergers person differ, and many of these differences are not deficits - save to the extent that people choose to make issues of them. "Stimming," for example. Aspies generally find a form of stimming that doesn't annoy others (so much). They don't actually stop stimming, or engaging in repetitive behaviors. They certainly don't stop *perseverating.* Nope.

We figure out how to get away with it. Perseveration is my primary tool for getting things done. I could certainly have benefited in learning how to perseverate better and when to come up for air - but the common reaction is to intervene when perseveration is detected.

So what I learned first was to conceal what I was doing, appease my caregivers, etc.

No doubt they considered this an improvement. I woudn't know, I'd given up investing in meaningful communication with them. My relationship with my parents was something of a relatively benign hostage situation - one that could esculate at any moment into critical or life-threatening situations.

I became a world-class appeaser. And this gives me an extremely jaded view of what neurotypical parents are seeing when they see "improvement in social skills."

Mind you, it is. "Winning Friends and Influencing People" by Dale Carnigie pretty much sums up the goal and intent of "neurotypical social skills."

And while I'm disinclined to manipulate and lie, if I'm rendered incapable of arranging my life so that I don't have to, I can employ those skills at need.

But why would I bother being around people that I need to lie to and cannot trust? Especially when I don't need that many people or social interactions to begin with?

An amusing insight comes from Issaac Asimov - probably aspie - who was rather taken aback when The Caves of Steel was referred to as a "disutopia."

He was writing an environment and social structure that appealed to him.

To me, it comes down to honoring and meeting the needs of the individual, regardless of whether that makes emotional or logical sense to you or me.

Lion Kimbro said...

I think if we study carefully, we'd find that "de-programming" actually is "re-programming." There's nothing "pre-existing" about our cult(ure.)

Cognitive liberty is no cognitive liberty at all, if it doesn't mean we can't adjust not only our own mind, but our collective mind as well.

Put another way, you are allocated about 5% of your mind space to your own thoughts -- the other 95% are made out of stories of history, stories of "the real world" (the one that college students depart to,) protocols for manners, social expectations, stories about what life is about, and so on.

That is, I'd guess that the 5% of "freedom" you and I exercise is within narrowly banded zones that are considered acceptable to the mainstream.

If you attempt to alter the 95%, then you are branded as a "cult," because that's an inter-personal space, and to meaningfully (actionably) alter it is to start reworking on the group space around yourself. There are social immune system workers that will put a "cult" flag on anybody who starts meaningfully interacting differently.

Put another way: Your thoughts immediately conform to public protocol whenever you interact with others, and you cannot change this by yourself.

Cognitive liberty demands the social right to create new cult(ure)s.

proto Post said...

Cognitive liberty is an important concept to talk about, if only because it helps us realize that there is no on/off switch between normal and not normal. Autistics themselves run the gamut, with a spectrum between low functioning and high functioning.

Anyone that's ever read a psychological study should see it, too. When scientists have determined that "humans behave this way because..." what they really mean is that, under laboratory conditions, a significant percentage of humans behave in an approximately similar way. No study reveals that all humans express a particular trait exactly the same as each other.

If you need more evidence that no normal human neurological makeup exists, go browse the DSM-IV and count the number disorders for which you have at least a couple symptoms. Odds are you're a perfectly healthy individual, but that doesn't mean you're without your quirks.

Everyone should be free to choose and protect their own psychological framework, but the vast variety of minds available to the human condition makes it obvious that not all such frameworks are compatible. In a perfect world, our fundamental choice should be choosing who we want to be, and all other choices should follow from that. In that case, it may be necessary to geographically, politically, or socially isolate specific types of people, but such a choice should always be voluntary.

You may choose to be a pedophile or a sociopath (this may be a choice in the future if the technology exists to reverse or prevent such conditions) or an "aspie" (note that I'm not attempting to morally equate these behaviors), but you may then have to choose where and how you live more selectively.

All the same, we may live in a future where heterosexual Christian capitalists because a rare subset of the human species, and those that occupy that mental state may have to make choices about where and how they live.

Where it concerns cognitive liberty, before discussions about prison, treatment, and government can begin, we must first discuss choice.

Razza said...

www.TherEleaseEffect.com Need I say more! I did it and it works even better than years of Buddhist training. Maybe not for everyone, but then again, what is!

Razza said...

Should have read www.TheReleaseEffect.com