Our fragile minds under surveillance

Maybe Hippocrates would have envisioned greater security for his patients’ health information.

When it comes to issues in mental health, the day-to-day problems of the mentally ill seem like they might be more than enough for anyone to handle. Mental illness is stigmatized, increasingly rising, difficult to detect and cure, culture plays a role in it, and psychiatry still struggles as the most scientifically backward field of medicine. I’ve written about the privacy of mental health data, the role culture plays in mental health, the nature of disease, and a bit of our stigma of depression, but I’ve yet to tackle one certain mystery: our existential threat to our minds.

Though every physician’s Hippocratic Oath includes a promised respect to privacy, it would have been difficult for Hippocrates to foresee a future in which we might have the power to know the very minute details of our mental behavior. Brain imaging technology and mental health records would allow anyone, from the a sneaky politician to your future employer, to know you inside-out. For a person suffering from mental illness, this can mean forfeiting liberties and luxuries to your privacy. With recent “social experiments” from sites like Facebook and Okcupid to collect information about users, many of us were outraged by how we could be “used” in such a way. Maybe the CEO’s behind those experiments were convinced of “Ockham’s Twitter” (among competing sources of information, the one with 140 characters or less should be selected), but many of us fear that we were one step away from a dystopian future of government surveillance. And how can anyone feel safe knowing their thoughts are being policed?

In addition, though our scientific research on the brain can lead us to great understandings, we’re still far from knowing the ways our physical brains are connecting to areas of sociology, ethics, and philosophy. It’s hard to find a model of the mind isn’t completely either dualist or reductionist. But that isn’t to say we aren’t making progress. And, with a greater understanding, we can finally answer the tricky questions neurotechnological research poses to us. The issues, from who should have access to your mind, who can collect/share that data, under what conditions might we need to control it, or anything similar that makes us feel uncomfortable can finally be addressed. If we can bring our models from neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy, and everything in-between together, then we can get a better picture of who we are and provide for a better future. As neuroethicist Kathinka Evers says, “one of the proposed goals of human brain simulation is to increase our understanding of mental illnesses, and to ultimately simulate them in theory and possibly in silico, the aim being to understand them better and to develop improved therapies, in due course.” Is the black box finally being unveiled?

Speaking of mental illness, our issues of mental health could provide insight into our cultural understanding of ourselves, as well. Under a re-branding of mental illness (as a cultural phenomena that can still be treated rather than a biological defect to be shunned), we put value in the way we think, not just as algorithmic organisms, but entirely valuable to how we find meaning in our lives. We want to know that what we’re doing has a purpose, a motive, value, or any other sort of meaning that can give us a reason to keep on living. We worry that our efforts aren’t worth it or that we truly have no control over our lives. These existential desires may manifest in mental illness in the form of anxiety, depression, or even PTSD. But we can also look at these existential desires as ways of searching for meaning and truth, and, in that case, maybe our mental issues could be seen the same way.

“People are always selling the idea that people with mental illness are suffering. I think madness can be an escape. If things are not so good, you maybe want to imagine something better. In madness, I thought I was the most important person in the world.” – John Nash

If we collect more informations about ourselves, are we really more secure? It’s easy to feel insecure, anxious, distracted, or overloaded in any way by the sheer amount of knowledge and information that we have. But let’s remember that we might have actually just shifted our focus to abstract sources of information (that still needs to be verified, justified, proven, and shown to other forms of epistemic certainty before we can really put it to any use) and we can’t let our rhetoric and discourse surrounding information put us at the hands of information itself. We talk about becoming distracted easily by the 21st century abundance of information, but these similar struggles have been around for centuries and, instead of accepting that we’ve become more estranged by it, we need to put ourselves above it. Seen this way, our worries of living in the Information Age are very similar to the existential crises we face of how much control we have over ourselves and who we really are.

With how much progress we are making on understanding the brain, whether it’s under the security camera, the surgical knife, or even the pen of the textbook, we still need to re-evaluate our values before making any big decisions. We’ve seen ways previous initiatives of mental health data collection have failed and the progress of understanding ourselves is tediously slow, but, in the past few decades, we’ve seen that we can re-emphasize the individual, autonomy, and self-constraint in systems of record-keeping. Transparency and willful control of what we can reveal about ourselves might increase our trust have gained popular support. And, with all the greater number of ways we can understand ourselves, we need to re-think our privacy as a new sort of autonomy.

Rather than the old days of privacy being something that was entirely separate from what the general public could see, we need a new way that can incorporate all the different ways our minds are being studied. We should look at the type, quality, and power of information that anyone collects about our minds. Such a paternalistic society in which we are entirely controlled by people above us does no good, not for our individual mental health nor for the society’s plans. And we can find new purposes and values in the setting of the 21st-century surveillance state. Maybe the promising results of the interdisciplinary nature of neuroscience will give us a new definition of identity, and we can feel safer knowing that we can explain who we are. 

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