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Cognitive liberty and right to one’s mind
George Dvorsky   Oct 20, 2009   Sentient Developments  

How does the concept of “cognitive diversity” relate to those of neurodiversity, neuroconformism, neurotypicality, and brainwashing? Is Aspergers syndrome and autism something we should cure or embrace?

We’ve been having a great discussion over 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!

George Dvorsky
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.


>  the right to not have one’s mind altered against their will

I suspect there is a bigger issue than is presented here.

George discusses interventions that are easily recognised as alterations of the mind against a person’s will, such as the former ‘therapies’ for homosexuals or attempts to ‘cure’ Asperger’s Syndrome.

But all of us constantly have our minds altered against our will.

How many times have you gone into a large supermarket to buy perhaps a packet of soap, and come out with half a dozen other things that you didn’t intend to buy? Eating healthily or remaining vegan is partly so difficult precisely because others persuade us to do the opposite, at times deliberately, unintentionally, overtly or covertly. Authors accused of plagiarism have now discovered ‘cryptomnesia’ - the act of writing something one has read previously elsewhere, without realising that the writing is not genuinely original.

So, the act of intervening to change someone is a spectrum, all the way from McDonald’s using red and yellow on their signage, through using TMS or NLP on a person signing a contract, to making permanent changes to someone’s personality.

Is there a point on the scale where intervention switches between OK and not OK? Or is it all OK, or all not OK?

“Today there’s an effort to cure autism and Asperger’s syndrome:a development the autistic rights people have railed against.”

My nephew has autism, and my brother has to fight for his son’s rights, but he would love for his son to be cured. Who are these “autistic rights people,” and what percentage of parents who have autistic children fit into this category?

I have a problem with the passages above that throw pedophilia and autism into the same bucket.

Pedophilia is predatory and invasive of boundaries of particularly vulnerable victims.

While some behavior of some autistic people can be disruptive and invasive of boundaries, this is worlds apart.  There is no predatory intent against vulnerable victims.

Behavior specifically due to autism that is objectionable on the grounds of disruptiveness, invasiveness of boundaries, or harm to self or others, is generally secondary to the inability to communicate or achieve desired goals through more acceptable means.  These goals are generally relief from sensory distress or pain, or the communication of basic needs such as hunger, or basic emotions such as fear.

And virtually all individuals on the autism spectrum are in fact *able* to communicate at least to some extent, if supported where necessary in doing so, and if so supported and respected do *not* engage in behavior that constitutes gross violation of others’ boundaries as a matter of course or willful intent.

The fundamental error in the public discourse over “curing” autism is the failure to distinguish between autism *per se*, on the one hand, and handicap or disability concomitant with or secondary to autism, on the other.

Even those adamantly opposed to “curing” autism support the mitigation or accommodation of handicap or disability concomitant with or secondary to autism.  Claims to the contrary by those who feel their hegemony threatened by activism for human and civil rights for autistic people abound, but they are nothing but a pernicious strawman argument.

Autism *per se*, on the other hand, comprises the differences between autistic and nonautistic people in cognitive patterns, sensory needs and preferences, aesthetic sensibilities, socialization patterns and preferences, and emotional responses.  Those who oppose “curing” autism generally oppose the eradication of these things, not the mitigation of handicap.

What the people who call for “curing” autism, and who ignore the distinction between autism *per se* and handicap concomitant with or secondary to autism, fail to understand—or purposefully ignore—is the thoroughly *pervasive* nature of autism *per se*.  It is as formative an axis of identity as gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or any aspect of cultural background or milieu.  A true “cure”, a true eradication of autism in an individual, would require a total overwriting of the individual’s personality and identity: likes and dislikes, individual quirks, emotions, ways of thinking, social behavior, and so on.

17 years ago, the autistic activist Jim Sinclair wrote, in the landmark essay “Don’t Mourn For Us” (

“This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.”

For that is what a true and total eradication of autistic characteristics entails, like it or not.

Brenda, that’s the biggest divide - between parents, and the individuals. Yes parents have too little help and are often so exhausted.  They need help, support, money.  Some autistic individuals are very hard work and unable to communicate and have very destructive behaviours, yes. Those things are known.  About 10% of us.  But…when asked (and most of us can communicate or learn to do so as time goes on), very very few autistic individuals (low or high functioning) express a desire for total cure.  We’d generally like better accommodations, more understanding, good therapies that give us more freedom of choice and better chances - but not a cure.  Why?  Because autism brings us benefits as well as deficits, even if neurotypical people seem quite unable to experience, imagine or understand those benefits.  Science is backing this up now. We are mostly seen as broken, useless, a burden, a problem…but that is not how we see ourselves.  What is ‘broken’ is the parent’s ideal of a ‘perfect normal’ child, perhaps.  They are hoping someone will give them the child they yearned for?  I know - I am a parent of a child with a disability too and I know the grief I first experienced.  In the international world of spirituality, the innate worth of us as people is being explored and discovered.  So many of us - and I do mean the majority from every observation over so many years- do not wish to wake up as ‘someone else’ against our will.  I suspect others wouldn’t either.  We are all loved by God and made in His image.  We should never forget it, and should seek to respect each individual with an ASC and do all we can to give them the right to choose freely if they can.  And to fight for a society that sees us as people of worth.

As a mother of an Aspergers child I have a very mixed feeling on this subject.  I wish it were easier for my son.  I wish his neuro-atypicality weren’t so limiting and didn’t involve so many (self)-destructive behaviors.  I love his mind for it’s wonder, it’s innocence and it’s unique perspective, but it is also vulnerable to people who want to exploit.  I wish (like every parent) to protect my children and do what is healthiest for them.  With his condition it is just more challenging. 

Would I want a “total cure” for him?  Probably not.  Would I want him to have a less difficult existence, of course.  I love his unique mind but wish it didn’t have such a hefty price tag (both metaphorical and literal) attached.

I want Autistics to be free to be Autistic. I hate having to beg for my and all Autistic existences to be acceptable according to the powers that be who want to eliminate us or make us somehow indistinguishable from Neurotypicals. I make sure to defend Autism and Autistics like myself any chance I can get. NTs think they are the only true definition of “human.” Well, Autism is sacred and it’s a shame NTs will never understand. And Autistics were never the enemy of NTs, but NTs betray us and make themselves our enemy. I am open to the possibility that exceptions exist among NTs, and I’m aware that Autistics know many non-Autistics (from a range of neurotypes) who may be loved ones in their lives. This isn’t about those individuals—I have no ill feelings toward them.

I support transhumanism that is Autism friendly. I want Autistics to be able to unlearn the things NTs have imposed on us to the best of our abilities. It would be nice if there was a way to unsuppress any old behaviors, mannerisms, thinking patterns, feelings, interests, etc. that NTs have tried to extinguish in us either through subtle or overt tactics. Perhaps a form of hypnotherapy could be used to empower Autistics this way, by getting ourselves back after years of trauma. This would make us “more Autistic” by recovering more of ourselves and escaping trauma. Whether through transhumanism or hypnotherapy or something else, we need to be able to be our best and truest Autistic selves. I want transhumanism to help Autistics to be Autistic and be happy and proud of it.

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