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We hold these freedoms to be self-evident...
By Liz Else,  New Scientist, Apr 2004
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Do you want to block traumatic memories from scarring your mind? Perhaps you do, but would you be happy if someone else did it for you? Or how about receiving marketing messages beamed directly at you in hypersonic waves? Mind control is getting smarter by the minute, says Richard Glen Boire, co-founder of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics in California. And, as he told Liz Else, we ain't seen nothing yet...


Should I be worried?

Freedom of thought is the basis of a lot of our existing constitutional rights in the US, as in many countries. With the burgeoning of neurosciences and the neurotechnologies they give rise to, we can see great opportunities but also great perils, because the law on freedom of thought is so underdeveloped. It is the most important of all legal freedoms, but the least articulated. Here at the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics (CCLE) in Davis, California, we try to provide legal theory and principles to guide courts, policy makers and civil liberty experts.


What kind of neurotechnologies are there?

On the near horizon are a slew of new pharmaceuticals we call memory management drugs. Some of these aim to improve memory safely. Others are designed to help dim or to erase the memories that haunt people suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.


photo by
Jonathan Sprague - jonathansprague.com


But right now?

Some of these drugs are available now. Take a drug like propranolol, a beta blocker used to control high blood pressure. It was found that people who take this drug within six hours or so of a traumatic event have a reduced recall of that event. People are talking about giving propranolol to emergency response teams before they go into horrific scenes such as plane crashes. Others have talked about giving it to soldiers after a gruesome battle.


Is propranolol really being used in that way?

Well, it has been tested in emergency rooms. In 2002, there was a study of the effect of propranolol on car accident victims in emergency rooms. It found that one month later, patients who received propranolol had fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder than patients who suffered similar injuries but were given placebos rather than the drug.


That does sound helpful.

Yes, that application may well be, so long as people are given the choice. But we are concerned about the idea of emergency room personnel automatically giving it to trauma victims. For instance, a victim of violent crime may not necessarily want to remember what happened, but may want to testify. Emergency room doctors might think it would be great to have a drug to give victims that would blank out horrible memories; but they might also overlook the complexities of why somebody would want to retain the integrity of their memory. It has to be the person's choice.


Is there anything else coming up?

In the next five to ten years, we think drugs that enhance memory are going to raise important issues of freedom of thought. Will you have a right to say no to these drugs if you are the only eyewitness to a crime? Could a future government say: "It's very important that you remember what you saw. We want you to take this drug at least until after you have testified in court."


Are there possibilities for coercion in these neurotechnologies?

Yes, in some more than others. Take brain fingerprinting. This is a real technology being tested by the FBI. It could become part of the key evidence to overthrow the murder conviction of Jimmy Ray Slaughter, who is facing the death penalty in Oklahoma for assault and murder. It works by picking up the P300 electrical wave emitted by the brain when the subject is shown images relating to a crime. Its strength is that the P300 wave is involuntary - the suspect can't affect the outcome. It is said to be much more accurate than the polygraph.

The CCLE has no problem with brain fingerprinting so long as it's voluntary, as in the Slaughter case. Our concern is that law enforcement agents will seek to use it coercively. Such compelled use ought to be forbidden, because it would pierce one of the most private and intimate human spheres: our own memory.


Aside from memory control, what other neurotechnologies are you looking at?

Hypersonic sound. This is a focused beam of sound used to deliver marketing noises or other messages in a very personal way. The sound is inaudible unless you walk into its narrow path.


It sounds entertaining.

Yes. It does have fun possibilities. But it's also invasive. It's sudden and it acts inside your head, as if you're hearing something through headphones. And Forbes magazine reported last September that American Technology Corporation, the company that invented hypersonic sound, is installing this in soda machines right now on Tokyo's streets. As you walk past, you'll suddenly hear inside your head the sound of the ice cubes dropping into the glass and the soda making that "psst" can-opening noise. You are going to be startled, you won't know where the sound came from and then you'll realise, wow, I was just hijacked by an advertisement.


Wouldn't there be a lot of scope for abuse?

It's not an expensive technology - you can buy hypersonic sound generating devices for about $600 - and they will get cheaper. If anyone wanted to destabilise other people they could do it really easily by making them think they were hearing voices in their heads. The victims would be unable to distinguish whether those sounds or voices had an external or internal source. Again the law is a big black hole on cognitive liberty issues like this.


How is the CCLE financed?

We get no government funding. Most of our funding comes from people who are involved primarily in developing the internet. They see the internet as an amazing technology for communication, yet at the same time they see its brightest promises being held back or co-opted by archaic legal concepts. They are interested in making sure that these new technologies, like neurotechnology, don't get misused, misapplied or regulated in a way that takes the heart out of them - or which removes the greatest possible benefit, or, even worse, directs them into some of the darkest applications. They want to see freedom of thought expanded rather than contracted.


Have you had any legal victories?

The most prominent case we fought was one that reached the US Supreme Court last year. It was about a dentist from Missouri called Charles Sell, who was arrested by the FBI and charged with fraud. While they held in him custody they claimed he was out of his mind and began an attempt to force him to take antipsychotic drugs. They claimed it was necessary before putting him on trial for the fraud, because in the US you have to understand the proceedings against you in order to have a fair trial.

We joined in Sell's defence because what was at stake was the government agency being at one and the same time both this man's accuser and his advocate in court. The US government wanted to forcibly inject Dr Sell with mind-altering drugs. They were also telling him: "Oh, this is for your own good. You have to take this drug in order for you to think clearly enough to defend yourself against our actions."


Did you win?

Yes. But the Sell case was a partial victory. The Supreme Court found that there was not enough evidence before it to allow the state to forcibly drug Sell. It set out some principles that make it very hard for the state to do that if the only justification is the need to bring somebody to trial.

But the Supreme Court did not articulate what Sell's interest was here. It simply recognised that mental integrity is an interest of the person. It certainly didn't examine the history of freedom of thought and how the future of freedom of thought is dependent upon maintaining an integrity of neuroelectrochemical processes, which was what we were hoping for. We wanted the court to recognise that we have entered an age where freedom of thought will become meaningless if we don't recognise and protect the individual's right to privacy, autonomy and choice with respect to his or her own brain chemistry.


So who should have control?

It's clear that by manipulating the brain you can change thought, and because your thoughts are central to who you are, and because freedom of thought is necessary for all our other freedoms, it ought to be the case that the individual, as opposed to the government, has the ultimate control over matters of the mind. Without freedom of thought, what freedom remains?


Should the US government use what it calls "pharmacotherapy" in its drugs war?

We have a big report coming out soon on pharmacotherapy. The focus is on how the new breed of neuro-drugs are helping to shift the old rhetoric of the "war on drugs" away from drug users as "the enemy" to being "sick people" who need treatment. It will then become a war of "good" new drugs versus the "bad" drugs. The good drugs are drugs that keep the bad, illegal drugs from passing through the blood-brain barrier. So policing the drug war is going to move from the external world of cops and helicopters to the internal world of increasing pressure to use these "neurocops" to reduce or entirely block the effects of illegal drugs.


Are there such drugs?

There is one under development by a French company called Sanofi-Synthelabo called SR141716 that blocks or reduces the effects of marijuana. It is in Food and Drug Administration clinical trials. The National Institute on Drug Abuse published findings in 2002 showing that this "anti-drug" reduces the effects of smoked marijuana by up to 75 per cent. The US government is serious about this effort to make not only the US but also the rest of the world drug-free, supposedly. It is now shifting this metaphor from "war" to "treatment". And in 2002, the Office of National Drug Control Policy even coined the term "compassionate coercion", saying that people who use illegal drugs are often in denial, so the government needs to act in this compassionately coercive way to get them the treatment that the government says they need.

The bottom line is that cognitive liberty is becoming one of the major civil rights issues of this century. Our goal is to rally the folks interested in fighting on the side of freedom of thought.