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Cognitive liberty and right to one’s mind

George Dvorsky

Sentient Developments

October 20, 2009

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 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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