A Conversation with Nita Farahany on The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology

A Conversation with Nita Farahany on The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology

A new dawn of brain tracking and hacking is coming. Will you be prepared for what comes next?

Imagine a world where your brain can be interrogated to learn your political beliefs, your thoughts can be used as evidence of a crime, and your own feelings can be held against you. A world where people who suffer from epilepsy receive alerts moments before a seizure, and the average person can peer into their own mind to eliminate painful memories or cure addictions.

Neuroscience has already made all this possible today, and neurotechnology will soon become the “universal controller” for all of our interactions with technology. This can benefit humanity immensely, but without safeguards, it can seriously threaten our fundamental human rights to privacy, freedom of thought, and self-determination.

Nita A. Farahany is the Robinson O. Everett Distinguished Professor of Law & Philosophy at Duke University, and Founding Director of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society. She is a frequent commentator for national media and radio and keynote speaker at events including TED, the Aspen Ideas Festival, the World Economic Forum, and judicial conferences worldwide. From 2010-2017, she served as a Commissioner on the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. She is regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on the ethics of neuroscience and in her new book, The Battle for Your Brain, she offers a path forward to navigate the complex legal and ethical dilemmas that will fundamentally impact our freedom to understand, shape, and define ourselves.

In this interview, I speak to Nita Farahany on the concept of liberty, how we need to understand it in the digital age, and how we can win the battle for our brains.

Q:  What underpins the concept of liberty?

[Nita Farahany]: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is something that I have often read and thought about, which is the balance of interest between the individual and the state and society and understanding that liberty means giving the individual the power over their own experiences, over their own life, over their own decision making by contrast to what interventions are justified to limit the actions and choices and thinking of individuals.

Q: Why do we need to question the concept of liberty now?

[Nita Farahany]: About the same time as John Stuart Mill was writing, other philosophers had been writing – when you look at what has been written about this topic, they always were focused on giving people this place of private reprieve, a vacuum of space that they thought was impenetrable. Leave people alone so that they can have the freedom to think about whatever they want to think.

Mill has this thoughtful chapter on freedom of thought, but it is all based on the assumption that you have the ability to think freely inside your mind and that part can’t be penetrated.

We are very porous now, and it isn’t just through neurotechnology, it is through all modes of technology that are designed to interpret and change our cognitive and effective functioning. So as I wrote this book, it is more of a call to recognise that in the modern era we have to expand our notion of liberty to include the right to cognitive liberty.

Q: How is our cognitive world being subverted?

[Nita Farahany]: All you have to do is walk through an airport, for example, and notice that it is very difficult to navigate through it. You will encounter humans (almost statue like) who are glued – looking at their mobile phones, unaware of what is happening around them, because they are addicted to their technology.

That is by design that people are addicted to technology and that they no longer have the ability to break free of it and to set it aside and to think, or they constantly come back to social media applications because of notifications that draw them back in, or they intend to watch just one movie but they watch three because of the automatic scroll feature that led to them watching the next one. Or they feel really sad, and they don’t know quite why, and it actually turns out it’s because their feed has been manipulated intentionally to toy with their emotions and to see what the effect of that would be. And that’s a real example of an experiment that was run on people on those social media platforms. So all we have to do is look at our existing relationship with technology to realise our brain is already at risk, and when I started to write the battle for your brain, it’s very easy I think for people to get it with the examples I give, but what I hope it does is then invite a conversation and an examination for everybody about what’s already happening, not just the coming age of neurotechnology.

[Vikas: What about the potential for deep fakes to subvert our understanding of what is, and is not reality?]

[Nita Farahany]:  I have a chapter on in the book, mental manipulation and the ways in which our brain heuristics are being intentionally targeted to shape and manipulate our choices. Deep fakes, are probably the most chilling example to me of it, as if you take a politician’s face and you use deep fake technology to slightly change it in ways that are imperceptible to the politician and to you, the observer, but that make the face just change enough to make it more trustworthy, to make your brain trust and like that image of that person and that person just a little bit more, or the synthesis of their voice that changes it just a little bit. Imperceptible to you in ways that would lead to you having greater trust in your brain.

So deep fakes in terms of a true deep fake, you do not even know if this is Barack Obama speaking or if this is a synthetic Barack Obama. There are ways to detect that today, and we think that we can discern otherwise. That’s quickly going to fall, but already the minute changes that can manipulate perception are terrifying.

Q: How should we, as individuals, be thinking about freedom of thought in a digital world?

[Nita Farahany]:  Today there are some very thoughtful scholars and very thoughtful advocates who are writing about the concept of freedom of thought, which I think is so important.

Dr Ahmed Shaheed who was the former mandate holder as the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief from the UN, presented the first-ever report on freedom of thought to the UN General Assembly in October 2021, very thoughtfully advocating for us to update and expand our understanding of freedom of thought because that protection to date has almost entirely been focused on religion and belief rather than a right to our thoughts, our right to not have our thoughts used against us, a right to not have our thoughts manipulated. I expand on that concept in the book, as one of what makes up the 3 parts of cognitive liberty. I’m advocating for a right to cognitive liberty, a new international human right that would be the right to self-determination of our brains and mental experiences. One piece of that is freedom of thought, but I argue for a narrower conception than Dr. Shaheed did. My main motivation is that I see them as overlapping. I see mental privacy protecting the full, robust set of interests in our brains and mental experiences, and thought – you and I are trying to read each other’s minds right now, right? We are trying to anticipate where you are going and that is part of ordinary and normal human interaction, and advertisers have long been trying to predict our behaviour to sell as products.

Part of being human is trying to develop the theory of mind of another person, and to persuade them and to change their minds. Where the line between that and manipulation comes, we have to be careful because freedom of thought is an absolute human right.

We need to carefully begin with a nugget, which is like that kind of inner monologue, the complex inner thoughts and images in our minds are what freedom of thought protects, whereas mental privacy is something I believe we need to explicitly update our understanding of privacy on the international human rights domain to include explicitly mental privacy.

That is going to cover more but sometimes it’s going to yield, there are going to be societal interests that justify intruding on our personal privacy. Rarely, if ever, are we going to find an example where it is permissible to intrude on our freedom of thought.

Q: How do we begin to safeguard ourselves in the battle for our brains?  

[Nita Farahany]:  Some people as I’ve been out there talking about this, their instant reaction is ‘then ban it! that sounds horrible as a technology.  We could relate to this as an instinct to escape but this is the reality – we are in this modern day – with ageing – suffering from mental illness and neurological disorders at a global proportion that is really crushing to humanity. We are having depression levels and mental illness rise exponentially worldwide. Even while physical health is improving, mental health is getting worse.

It’s evident we have not treated mental health and access to our own brains in the same way as everything else. Like, you probably know your cholesterol level. As a male, you may know your PSA levels, and you know your CBC levels. You know your heart rate, your resting heart rate, the number of steps that you take per day. But most people have absolutely no idea what is happening inside their brains other than through self-reflection. So the ability to quantify that and give people direct access to information about what’s happening to their brains and their brain health I think could be radically transformational. I believe that the right to cognitive liberty is not just a right from interference by others, it’s a right to exercise our cognitive liberties, and that includes the informational right of self-access. It turns out that’s been acknowledged- informational self-access has already been recognised as an international human right but we just need to integrate that into the conception of a right to access information about our own brains.

However, as you mentioned, if I can access information about my own brain, who is it that’s giving that access? It’s a corporation that has the software and the platform. It’s essential then to make sure they cannot commodify that same data and sell it and instrument me to be used for all kinds of discriminatory and other purposes. That is the obstacle but I would say the UK did a better job of that than we have here in the US. But none of us is doing a great job worldwide in having the right balance between individual rights over our data versus the corporate commodification of individuals.

Q: How do we- as a society- decide what is (and is not) right to do?

[Nita Farahany]:  To start with, cognitive liberty includes a right to and that right to is self-determination. In turn, self-determination as I conceive of it is a right to self-access, but a right to enhance your brain or diminish your brain. But there are some things that really do go beyond humans and so I have an entire chapter dedicated to this concept of beyond human, and the reason I do that is to show freedom of thought is an absolute right but self-determination and mental privacy are not.

They are relative rights and they always have been recognised as such even when John Stuart Mill was writing On Liberty he had the harm principle as a limiting principle to understand there is a point at which your actions harm others, that society has a right to intervene.

The main question for beyond humans is where do we find that? Is I extinguishing my memory, does that harm society? And we have to be careful about that harm principle, which does not expend it too far. It needs to be direct and concrete harms to society, not theoretical or bigger global harms as a justification for intervention. But there are times, like for example if I erase my memory and I remove a part of my brain that leaves me an invalid, somebody who society has to take care of, does society have a right to say the burden you have created on society is too great for the benefit you as an individual have claimed?

I invite through a process of democratic deliberation, us collectively defining those lines and understanding that balance, because that’s what we have to do. We have to come to the table together and decide, given that it is a balance between individual rights and societal interest, where we draw that line for these interventions that truly do expand and change even what it means to be human.

Q:  When I read it, one of my, you know that classic railroad test for ethics, my railroad test for this was if one of the safeguards that we think is important in society in terms of preventing future war is institutional memory in a society of the horrors of the previous war. Now arguably if you can remove the memory of the horrors of war, it is no doubt better for those individuals. However, are we then dooming society to have more wars because you’ve now forgotten the horrors of war?

[Nita Farahany]: I write about propranolol as a drug for fear memory. If you take this medication within 24 hours of a traumatic event it may reduce the fear, the PTSD associated with it or even just the emotional content of the memory. There have been wide discussions given the prevalence of PTSD for people in the military that may be in their very kits, when they are at war and on the front line, so we’ve got to have propranolol. Now imagine this scenario. You are on propranolol, you bomb a civilian site, the horror of that goes for the individual but also for the society collectively as a whole, that moral inhibition is part of what prevents us from doing it over and again. And what if we take away that moral inhibition both from the person but also collectively all of us see this horror and we see it on the news and pop a propranolol so that we don’t absorb the horror of it. I don’t think that would be good, I don’t think that would benefit us in the long run. It’s part of what the moral arc of humanity is, which is to try to make choices that in the long run are for human flourishing. That wouldn’t do it. But if you look at it just for the individual, of course that person in the military should not suffer from PTSD. So it’s hard, because we’re making these individual choices without looking at the collective consequences.

The reason I separate out beyond humanity, and I really have that as a separate chapter is there are collective choices we are going to have to make. There is the arc of what is best for human flourishing that we are going to have to make, and there has to be a process by which we do that. I try to lay that out and show how that’s been a strategy that’s been employed by CRISPR technology and how that kind of process of democratic deliberation can work. When I was deciding to write this book, it was very deliberate for me to write it and go with St. Martin’s Press over an academic press for a particular reason, which is I wanted a global conversation. Academic presses are terrific, but they don’t get it out to everybody else to be part of the public consciousness and debate. I can’t imagine anything more important for the future of humanity than figuring this out together, and for people to be aware that it’s the first step of making that happen. 

Q: Do we need to re-assess the ‘who’ – when we discuss ‘I’ (referring to ourselves)?

[Nita Farahany]:  Yes. Annie Murphy Paul wrote a book called the extended minds which I thought was great, and part of it was really to help people understand this concept of extended personality, half of it is stored in your phone right now, it’s not just in your brain. As we think about your cognitive and affective processes, there are people who are writing about neurotechnology and neuro-rights and I think that misses the point, which is it’s not just in your brain. Your brain and mental experiences is broader and how we think about them is wider and cognitive liberty is a vast concept that extends far beyond just neurotechnology.  Therefore, as we think about it we’re going to have to think about what the boundaries are and part of the boundaries that I invite us to think about is again we don’t want to interfere with ordinary human interaction. We don’t want to create a liberty interest that says that like, my 3 year old when she manipulates me for a popsicle that she has violated my cognitive liberty. I delight that she is trying to figure out what I think and that she wants to know what I’m thinking and tries to persuade me and change my mind, that’s part of what it means to be human.

Importantly we have to recognise our personality, and how our affective abilities are represented and included in a broader set of things.

The part of what the beyond human chapter contemplates is also the kind of ideas of transhumanism where cognition if you imagine through neurotechnology may look very different, and where I end and you begin may look very different as well because if we communicate brain to brain and if we share our cognitive processes literally more directly to try to solve a problem together, it’ll be very difficult to disentangle you from me in that process. And that’s going to raise really complex questions about my cognitive liberty versus your cognitive liberty, your intellectual property versus my intellectual property, but just bigger questions about the collective versus the individual and how we’re going to draw balances and lines between them.

[Vikas: what about the dilemmas of life and death as they relate to neuro rights?]

[Nita Farahany]:  Yes. So, let’s say cognitive liberty rather than neuro-rights…

I would say the agenda of transhumanism is in part to figure out if uploading minds is possible. And it’s interesting because our cognition is extended, so if I were to literally just directly upload everything from my brain you’d be missing a lot.

But let’s imagine it’s perfect. Let’s imagine you can at least get some Nita versus Nita Prime, and Nita Prime is the prime that exists within a computer form, and Nita Prime continues, do I have a right not to be deleted? Do I have a right to continue to make choices? Do I have a right to delete myself? Can I be overwritten? Can I be updated? Can I be upgraded? All of these questions are incredibly difficult questions, and they used to be the realm of science fiction, oh isn’t this a fun thought experiment? I’m a philosopher so let’s talk about that possibility because now it’s real. I talk about the examples of memory tracing that’s already occurring through implanted neurotechnology, and those are just the earliest seeds of this.

We have a long way to go before our full cognition can be uploaded, but parts of it, and aspects of it can be. But what will that mean and is that good for humanity is another question that we have to ask? And is cognitive liberty indefinite? Where does death occur and what does death mean? These are all difficult questions we need to be at the table deciding together.

[Vikas: do we, therefore, require more multi-disciplinary conversations?] 

[Nita Farahany]:  Yes, and the challenge of the course of multi-disciplinary conversations is bridging the gap between them. And I’m fortunate, I’m well positioned in this conversation with a background in science, philosophy and law. There are not many people who first of all spend that much time in school, that’s a privilege that I was able to spend that much time in school, but also many people would not want to spend that much time in school learning those different disciplines. And it’s hard for me to keep up on each of those fields, there are people who are much more sophisticated about neuroscience than I am, much more sophisticated about the philosophical debates than I am, who are much more sophisticated about the legal arguments than I am. Because that’s where they spent all of their time, on each of those.  But we need a bridge. We need a way to bridge across society and we need a much, much broader dialogue. We need people from humanities at the table, we need more artists at the table, we need everybody collectively from different perspectives at the table and that kind of stakeholder conversation isn’t as easy to achieve. I’m hoping the book gives a common ground for people to enter into the debate, I’m hoping it’s accessible across all those disciplines, to give people a common foundation for the conversation.

Q: How will these technologies benefit humanity?

[Nita Farahany]:  I’m an optimist too like yourself and I end the book on that optimistic note which is I believe that if we get this right it can be the most empowering possibility for humanity. We associate our sense of self so deeply with our minds, with our cognitive and affective experiences, we’re not treating it on par so, to begin with, I think we end up treating brain health and wellness and our understanding of our own selves and each other, suddenly we have access to that and treat it in the same way.

That alone would be transformational, but there are even more distant possibilities I imagine for a moment the ability to truly empathise with you and to truly connect with your brain to brain. To share a full resolution thought with you. To bring you into an experience. I want to share a memory with you right now, I’m limited in describing it to you but if I could show it to you in my mind, if I could literally share that with you, if we could literally share with each other how something affects us, that could be extraordinary. But also if we could collectively take, we talked about multidisciplinarity, envision being able to do that at a different level where we actually are working together, harnessing and not dealing with all of the limitations of the intermediary of our bodies and our speech as a way to truly collaborate with one another. I think every problem we have that we’re facing, from climate change to health and neurological disease and disorder, collectively we could address structural racism if we could truly understand and empathise with one another, imagine how different it would be.

I aspire to a place in which humanity truly is kind to one another, is compassionate, empathetic, and is truly much more united in that way.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.