The human brain is an enigma wrapped in a skull, but the field of neuroscience is beginning to unravel its secrets. What we learn could be used for good – such as how to develop prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs that can be controlled directly by a patient's thoughts – or bad, like the possibility of mind-controlled weaponry. To help us navigate the potentially murky waters of probing and peering into the human mind, researchers from Switzerland have proposed four new human rights relating to limitations on how the brain should be read or manipulated.
Brainwaves can be tracked using electroencephalography (EEG), and that's helping us map out which parts of the brain are involved in which processes, diagnose concussions, guess which number someone's thinking of, help stroke victims regain their motor skills or let "locked-in" people communicate with the outside world. If that's the "out" signal, than transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is the "in": placing a magnetic coil on the back of the skull, the patient's brain can be directly stimulated to boost memory or learning, send messages, treat migraines or even play games.
But there's a dark side to the technology. Unlocking the secrets of the brain may leave our innermost thoughts open to being hacked, read and shared without our consent, we could lose our sense of self, or in the worst case scenario, we could be effectively driven insane.
"The mind is a kind of last refuge of personal freedom and self-determination," say the researchers. "While the body can easily be subject to domination and control by others, our mind, along with our thoughts, beliefs and convictions, are to a large extent beyond external constraint. Yet, with advances in neural engineering, brain imaging and pervasive neurotechnology, the mind might no longer be such an unassailable fortress."
With these concerns in mind (pun intended), the researchers from the University of Zurich and the University of Basel proposed four new human rights that might become increasingly relevant in the near future as neuroscience advances. According to the team, every human on the planet should have the right to cognitive liberty, mental privacy, mental integrity, and psychological continuity.
The right to cognitive liberty
Freedom of choice, speech, press and religion are key to the US Constitution, but all of these could fall under one umbrella: cognitive liberty. An individual's mind is where they make all of their personal decisions relating to what they believe, say and do, and the researchers propose that this should be preserved as a fundamental human right. Organizations and governments should not be able to "forcibly manipulate the mental states, and implicitly the brain states of individual citizens," and people should have the right to refuse coercive uses of neurotechnology. It's a little terrifying that this even needs to be considered, but as that technology advances over the next few years or decades, it's worth laying the groundwork now.
The right to mental privacy
Thanks to the internet, our personal information has never been more public, but what happens when organizations or governments are able to record data straight from our brains? We don't always have direct control over our thoughts, and as the researchers point out, even if someone has consented to an EEG scan, the device could pick up far more information than the person wanted to share. The team's idea of mental privacy could be satisfied by ensuring that these devices can only read the brainwaves that the person explicitly agrees to, and the information gathered should be protected from leaking all over the internet. That's particularly important because our thoughts are about as personal as information can get, and the inextricable link to our identity might make it impossible to keep that data completely anonymous.
The right to mental integrity
If a shady third party is messing around with your computer without your knowledge, it could corrupt the data. Now imagine that the "computer" is your brain – corruption there could, literally, drive you insane. Brain-computer interfaces are already coming into use for prosthetics that can be controlled through thought, meaning that patients come to think of them as their own limbs. But these devices could be remotely accessible, which would be as disturbing as if some unknown person suddenly seized control of your left hand. To protect people from that horror story, and the possible slippery slope towards brain-washing, the paper puts forward mental integrity as a human right.
The right to psychological continuity
People build their identity on memories and thoughts, and neuroscience is already beginning to uncover ways to actively alter these things. Memories can be implanted or erased, potentially leading to behavioral changes (either deliberately or through carelessness), which could result in people losing their sense of self. Preserving this is what the researchers call a right to psychological continuity.
While not all of these scenarios are relevant right now, it might be a good idea to start thinking about them in terms of health, law and ethics, before they become a reality. The finer details, how the ideas should be implemented and to what extent, is all still up for debate, but the researchers are keen to get the conversation started.
The research was published in the journal Life Sciences, Society and Policy.