Monday, May 30, 2011

George Dvorsky - Designer Psychologies: Moving beyond Neurotypicality

I think we are much closer to designer medicine for things like cancer than we are to designer psychologies - our understanding of genetics (limited as it is) still exceeds our understanding of the mind and consciousness. If we choose a simple materialist approach to healing the mind (such as focusing on neurotransmitters, for example) we will be missing a larger perspective that includes the ways experience rewires the brain/mind much more effectively in the long-term than any drug can do. I appreciate this article in that it seems Dvorsky is making similar arguments.

He mentions the following:
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.
I totally agree with this. The best current work on this area is being done by Dr. Dan Siegel with his Mindsight approach that harnesses mindfulness and attachment theory to literally rewire the brain to function in healthier ways.

Designer Psychologies: Moving beyond Neurotypicality

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.

From 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 . . . . .

George Dvorsky serves on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.
Read the whole article.

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