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Tuesday, 30 December 2008 10:32

Alice in Neuroland - Page 20

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No matter what happens, these new understandings--of how cellular processes of emotional regulation and disregulation profoundly shape human thought, response, behavior, and even story--are likely to continue to be almost intoxicating. Being able to tweak the activity of a pinhead's worth of neurons is remarkable. In the intoxication, it's easy to applaud the change and forget to ask whether it's good, and how it'll be used. Only wisdom can decide when a longed-for stability crosses the line into rigidity. Only the wise know when increased efficiency and confidence shade into narcissism and even sociopathy. And that is why, no matter how good the machines get, the sages and wise women of psychotherapy and religion will have a place.

Questions about narcissism and rigidity are ultimately moral questions--questions human beings have pondered since people first hung around fires together, telling folktales and epics about the hero's quest and his final return. Such questions can't be answered by machines. Actually, the ancient Greeks have already taught us that every virtue needs its constraining opposite: honesty without kindness, for example, is cruelty. Similarly, the ancient Buddhist masters warned us that each good quality has its "near-enemy": the near-enemy of even-mindedness is indifference; the near-enemy of compassion is pity. Unleavened by such traditional wisdom, neurofeedback could help shape people into ridiculous parodies of the attributes that are so revered in the 21st-century marketplace--making them hyperefficient, capable of unlimited work, and never, ever depressed or self-doubting.

In the 1930s, the blues guitarist and songwriter Robert Johnson was reputed to have gone out to the crossroads alone at night and sold his soul to the devil in return for superhuman musical talent. In legends about such Faustian bargains, the desperate trade always takes place in isolation and involves a desire for some single-pointed form of perfection, outside a larger context of human relationship. As the 21st century advances and neurotherapeutic tools become ever more powerful and efficient, we'll depend more than ever on the great wisdom traditions to keep us away from the crossroads, where we may be tempted to bargain our souls away, and to remind us of where we all came from--hanging around the fire together, telling stories.

Networker Features Editor Katy Butler was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in 2004. She's written for the New Yorker and The New York Times , and teaches memoir writing at the Esalen Institute each fall. Contact: katybutler9@earthlink.net or www.katybutler.com.
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