Deep Brain Stimulation Affects Personality

Adina Roskies Academic Minute:

Among the exciting developments in the Neurosciences and Cognitive Sciences is the ability to directly intervene in cognitive function. Pioneering work in the areas of Deep Brain Stimulation and brain computer interfaces (also known as BCIs) has demonstrated that we have the ability to dramatically reduce the motor impairments of Parkinson’s disease, to alleviate Treatment Resistant Depression, and to allow people with neural degeneration or traumatic injury to regain motor or sensory function via the connection to robotic prostheses. Although these interventions involve considerable risks and are quite invasive, and although they may not work for everyone, they can significantly improve the quality of life of the people for whom they are effective. They also bring to the fore deep philosophical questions about the nature of our humanity, and ethical considerations surrounding the deliberate intervention into the organ that somehow defines our agency and identity.

The fact that we can increasingly well target and modulate the activity of certain brain regions in order to effect therapeutic change, and translate our natural brain activity into instructions for robotic limbs makes plain that mental functioning is, in some deep way, nothing other than neural functioning. Consider the case of a patient undergoing DBS that resulted in his switch from having broad musical tastes to having an obsession for the music of Johnny Cash. When DBS was interrupted, his tastes reverted to his original eclectic interests; when DBS was resumed, the preference for Johnny Cash returned. Others have developed psychoses or gambling addictions. That our tastes and other aspects of our personalities are stably modulated by neural modulation challenges our intuitive dualistic view of the mind as something over and above our physical bodies. It also poses a challenge to a number of deeply held beliefs concerning responsibility, free will, religious belief, and moral objectivity.

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