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IEET > Rights > Neuroethics > FreeThought > Personhood > Vision > CyborgBuddha > Directors > George Dvorsky

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Designer Psychologies: Moving Beyond Neurotypicality


George Dvorsky
By George Dvorsky
Sentient Developments

Posted: May 29, 2011

Designer psychologies, or customized cognitive processing modalities, describes the potential for future individuals to selectively alter the specific and unique ways in which they take in, analyze and perceive the world. Cognitive modalities are the psychological frameworks that allow for person-to-person variances in subjectivity, including such things as emotional responses, social engagement, aesthetics and prioritization. The day is coming when we’ll be able to decide for ourselves how it is exactly that we want to process our world.

Most of us have the so-called neurotypical cognitive response. We know, however, mostly through our interactions with those outside of the cognitive norm, that neurotypicality is not the be-all and end-all of psychological experience. As the Autism Rights Movement has demonstrated, our tendency to describe anyone outside the neurotypical norm as being abnormal, pathological or broken in some way is not entirely accurate or fair. Impairment is in the eye of the beholder, and in many cases, we are finding considerable value in the neurodiverse experience.

Indeed, autism is a great example of this. While it can largely be characterized as a social communication disorder, this definition of autism is clearly an expression of the neurotypical bias which, rightly or wrongly, places great value on person-to-person interactions and social conventions; autistics don’t necessarily see this as a problem and are often quite content to focus on their own thoughts and pursuits. Moreover, it’s through the autistic lens that the world can be processed, understood and appreciated in a way that’s qualitatively different than that of the neurotypical mind.

Society benefits from neurodiversity. It carries an intrinsic worth. It’s through “different kinds of thinking” that we get alternative perspectives on the world, and as a result, unique and often astounding forms of expression. Famous autistics, for example, have produced great works of art, scientific theories, and even such unorthodox inventions as cattle calming chutes thanks to Temple Grandin.

Now, as I address the potential for designer psychologies, I am not necessarily saying we should develop technologies to help us all become autistics—but if that’s your cup of tea, then go for it. What I am suggesting is that autistics provide a glimpse into the “other,” that there is huge potential for other cognitive modalities outside of neurotypicality, and that we should consider developing our neurosciences such that we can individually tailor our psychologies in accordance with our values, changing environments, technologies, capacities and social arrangements.

despsyFrom neurotypicality to neurodiversity

Okay, so why do we need to reach outside the bounds of neurotypicality? What’s so wrong with our brains that we can’t leave well enough alone?

As just mentioned, there is intrinsic personal and societal worth to neurodiversity. But in addition, it is an expression of our cognitive liberty and our right to modify our minds as we see fit. Moreover, it is a way for us to re-jig and improve upon an increasingly outdated piece of equipment, namely our Paleolithic brains.

While there is significant variance within neurotypicality, we tend to agree that it defines a strict band of cognitive traits and normal functioning that, when transgressed, leads to pathology, or in some cases extreme giftedness. Now, while we may think that there is considerable diversity within neurotypicality, it is nothing compared to the potential space of possibilities that exist outside it.

It’s within this small patch of “normalcy” that Homo sapiens, for the most part, currently dwells. We are a species that finds itself in a post-industrialized information era civilization — a situation far removed from the environment in which we evolved over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. It’s for this reason that neurotypicality should also be thought of as Paleoneurology. Our minds are most suited to life in Paleolithic tribal environments; our psychological tendencies are all adaptive traits that have resulted in such characteristics as tribalism, hierarchic social arrangements, the Dunbar limit (maximum number of social connections), cognitive biases, strictly calibrated emotional responses, an aesthetic appreciation for nature, organic forms, and human things.

We obviously don’t live in a Paleolithic society (except in my household), and many of these traits have resulted in a number of maladaptive behaviors, including proclivities for addiction, and modern diseases like depression, obesity, ADHD, and stress. It has resulted in environmental and social alienation, in which we have great difficulty dealing with noise and light pollution, or through social arrangements far removed from tribal and familial settings.

This is a problem that is not getting better anytime soon. In fact, we, as biological creatures, have created a civilization that is increasingly complex and even postbiological. We stand to become even further distanced and alienated from our settings as time passes. Sure, many of the things we have are deliberately designed to please, but that’s also part of the problem, leading to such things as web and video game addiction. And yet other things that surround us are completely outside of intentional design — the products of brute utilitarianism (think concrete slabs, roads, telephone poles, computer code, massive data sets, and so on).

The processing mind

From a certain vantage point the designer psychologies initiative could be seen as a kind of cognitive enhancement, and I don’t really have a huge problem with that. But this is more than just enhancement—it’s more than such things as increased attention spans, intelligence, and memory—traits that can clearly be labeled as improvements.

It’s through designer psychologies that we can strive to be different, and not just better; this is why the neurodiversity movement is so important. It’s about creating alternatives. Consequently, alternative psychologies may actually result in the voluntary onset of impairment — or at least an impairment as viewed through the lens of other modalities. This will be a very tricky area to navigate in terms of the ethics, but it’s a conversation that needs to be had.

And by alternative psychologies I am referring to fundamental changes in the ways our brains perceive and process information. Our brains are largely preconfigured to help us interpret and operate in the world, much like a computer processes information. This computer analogy goes back to the mathematician Claude Shannon who described information processing as the conversion of latent information into manifest information. This is basically the process of having unprocessed or pre-processed information, whether sent out by the environment or through an intentional agent, delivered to a receiver, and having the intended receiver transform, process, and potentially respond and act on that information. Along the way our brains do such things as data filtering and prioritization to help us distinguish signal from noise. We have little to no control over what we think is important, valuable or aesthetically pleasing; these are largely autonomous responses.

How wonderful would it be to recalibrate these information processes according to our needs as a transhuman species. Thankfully we have a good idea as to how we might be able to make this possible.

Back in the 1970s, it was Abraham Moles and Frieder Nake who established and analyzed the links between information processing and aesthetics. They argued that the subjective experience of interpreting incoming data is dependent on the software set up in the brain. Thus, it’s here where we can work to change our seemingly innate preferences.

Cognitive customization and design

So, what kinds of thing would we want to do. What are some examples of designer psychologies?

The space of all possible viable and worthwhile psychologies is absolutely massive. Neurotypicality is but a tiny speck of what’s possible. While it would be impossible for me to predict the various ways in which we might want to alter our cognitive modalities, there are a number of areas we might want to consider:

A. Aesthetics

It’s time that we started to adapt our minds to our environment rather than the other way around. A human, transhuman or posthuman mind needs to be able to interpret contemporary things. Consequently, we need to re-think our aesthetic appreciation of those artifacts not traditionally present in the human palate of taste. Consider a world in which we find greater appreciation and deeper worth in everyday objects, mundane tasks, and abstract things (e.g. numbers, patterns and data sets). Or in things we can’t possibly imagine. We would essentially be expanding the space of subjective evaluation and appreciation.

As an aside, this could work in conjunction with the strengthening and weakening of our sensory capacities, and even the deliberate onset of synesthesia (which is the blending and intermingling of sensory experience). These new senses would have to be carefully calibrated to ensure that that (1) the extreme ends of the bandwidth scale are safe and not overwhelming to the receiver and (2) can be appropriately interpreted and reacted upon (i.e. all points of the emotional spectrum, including such things as a sense of disgust or repugnance where such a reaction is warranted).

B. Emotions and mood

Cognitive processing is very closely tied to our emotional responses. We are reflexively drawn to or repulsed by certain things simply because we’re hardwired that way. We could re-design our psychologies such that certain tendencies are strengthened or weakened in ways described earlier.

But emotional response can also refer to our default brain-state, the so-called normal frame of our day-to-day dealings. This is often referred to as our psychological baseline. When we’re below the baseline we’re depressed and when above we’re elevated or even manic. This is an incredibly important area for consideration, especially the prospect of permanently raising the baseline above the default state.

C. Biases

One of the most wonderful, if not sobering pages, in all of Wikipedia is the list of cognitive biases. This page lists over a hundred biases, which are defined as “a pattern of deviation in judgment that occurs in particular situations.” These deviations in judgment are like software bugs in the human mind that are difficult to overcome and often lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment or illogical interpretation.

Cognitive biases are instances of evolved mental behavior. Some biases were adaptive, for example, because they resulted in more effective actions in given contexts or because they enabled faster decisions when faster decisions were of greater value. Others might be on account of insufficient mental faculties, or from the misapplication of a mechanism that is adaptive under different circumstances. We are very poor at math and probabilistic reasoning, for example, which has given rise to a host of cognitive biases, including those that lead to such behaviors as gambling.

Through designer psychologies, we could alleviate (if not eliminate) the impacts of these biases, which would result in clearer thinking and improved rationality.

D. Social engagement

Some individuals may wish to strengthen the attachments they feel to other persons. Shyness, introversion and inhibitions could be overcome. Drugs like MDMA cause the user to feel closer, more in-tune and empathetic towards others. But these feelings don’t last and there tend to be other side-effects. It’s through designer psychologies that such a modality could be maintained more consistently. The strengthening of our mirror neurons, for example, could make us more capable of considering other minds.

E. Moral enhancement

Which leads to another promising area, that of moral enhancement. Moral enhancement is the speculative study of how we could modify and enhance the ways in which humans act as moral agents.

Morality is clearly a relative term that’s subject to both individual, social and cultural norms, but it’s a fascinating area of inquiry as transhumanists try to figure out the best ways to modify themselves to improve their moral behaviour.

Admittedly, this is a short list of the kinds of mods that may someday be possible. There are likely many other traits, including those factors that we’re still unsure about and how they might impact on personality and conscious awareness. These examples are also all arguably within neurotypical experience. I would imagine that the kind of designer psychologies that will come into existence will be profoundly different than anything we have ever experienced.

Getting there

Up to this point there’s been lot of handwaving on my part to describe the ways in which we could actually tweak our brains to such a degree. Thankfully, there are in fact a number of promising areas that may make the vision of designer psychologies possible.

A. Targeted psychopharmaceuticals

We already have a number of drugs at our disposal that can modify our psychologies in the ways I’ve described, but they often co-incide with impairment, poor judgement, side-effects, and of course, they don’t last. Future pharmaceuticals may be developed that are safer, work with greater cognitive specificity, are customized to the user, and are longer-lasting.

These drugs could work by boosting or alleviating the impacts of existing neurotransmitters, or as novel neurotransmitters altogether. They will impact on hormone levels and other chemical and cellular reactions that impact on human psychology.

B. Adaptive harnessing

Evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi argues that we shouldn’t think about introducing externalities to the human brain, but to rework and re-adapt its mechanisms instead. As an example, he refers to neuronal recycling. In his words,  “To harness our brains, we want to let the brain’s brilliant mechanisms run as intended—i.e., not to be twisted. Rather, the strategy is to twist Y into a shape that the brain does know how to process.” Simply stated, Changizi is suggesting that we work with what we got.

C. Genomics

There’s no question that human psychology has a genetic underpinning. We know that certain traits and tendencies “run in the family.” It will be through the maturation of genomic technologies that we will eventually be able to identify and modify those genetic elements that are responsible for our behavior.

D. Cognitive implants

Cognitive implants are exactly that: assistive devices that can be implanted in the brain. There are a number of promising areas (or soon to be) in development:

  • Brain pacemakers: Brain pacemakers are implants in the brain which send small electric signals to brain tissue, with the results being effective treatments for epilepsy, Parkinson’s and depression. Clearly there’s potential here for using more sophisticated and targeted pacemakers to do much more.
  • Artificial neurons: As opposed to adaptive harnessing, artificial neurons could introduce novel capacities into the brain altogether. While most have their eye on this technology for the purposes of treating neurodegeneration, it could also be used to boost the capacity of the human brain and establish ancillary cognitive systems altogether.
  • Molecular nanotechnology: And of course there’s molecular nanotechnolgy in which all bets are off. Nano, if it can be actualized to the degree we think it can, could radically rework and cyborgize the human brain. All cognitive functions could be altered — everything from the sensory inputs that convert incoming data into brain-readable format, through to all cognitive interactions that cause shifts in mood, perception and emotional response.


Transhuman diversity

Given the incredible possibilities for designer psychologies and the implicit understanding that its adoption will be driven by individual choice, the potential for neurodiversity to explode in the future is astounding.

Designer psychologies will increase diversity and result in greater tolerance for different types of minds. It will vastly increase and expand subjective awareness, resulting in greater potential, creativity, scientific and technological breakthroughs and forms of expression. It will further the cause of cognitive liberties and ultimately result in less suffering as we gain greater control over our mental faculties.

In a society that decries transhumanism and human enhancement as a way to homogenize humans, I hope that the prospect of designer psychologies will show our detractors that the posthuman future will be more diverse and inclusive than anyone can possibly imagine.


George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.
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