Dr. Zachary Stein, philosopher of education and a research member of the Neurohacker Collective, begins a series on the ethics of neurohacking. This series is part of our commitment to engage our research community on the challenges and opportunities in neurotechnology.
As a philosopher and educator I am sometimes asked about my work with NHC and about the word neurohacking in particular. To my mind neurohacking means using the best of what is known about how the brain and mind work from all fields and disciplines in the service of realizing humanity’s deepest potentials, starting with self-realization and moving outward. Calling this kind of endeavor neurohacking is putting old wine in new casks—adding modern neuroscience to the ancient philosophical practice of seeking self-transformation in service to humanity. What the neurohacker does is focus on actualizing the next logical step of including psychology and neuroscience in the pantheon of inspirations and tools for a life dedicated to wisdom, love, and service. At its best neurohacking involves some of the key tasks of philosophy, such as phenomenology, reflective self-authorship, and the exploration of human potentials in self and relationship.
My colleagues who are dialectal critical realists would group neurohacking under what they call, “totalizing transformative depth-praxis” – an intentional transformation of human self- consciousness– “depth-praxis” – based on a comprehensive critical philosophy of mind-brain and culture-society. Fans of integral meta-theory would call it Integral Transformative Practice. My former colleagues at Harvard called it Mind, Brain, and Education, or educational neuroscience.
Of course, neurohacking is a term that draws on a computer metaphor. It is also a term originating in a particular time (2000s) and a particular place (Silicon Valley). It comes pre- loaded towards reductionism, hyper-masculinity, technocratic, scientistic, and empiricist readings. The term implies instrumental control and even a kind of cheating or shortcutting, wherein the hacker somehow benefits from outsmarting the normal order of things. When understood this way it can be seen as an ideological outgrowth of the simplistic medical models that dominate the healthcare industry, which make us think that a magic pharmacological bullet can be bought and mechanically inserted into the body as a quick fix. I’d like to see these connotations drop away from the term, which is part of mission of the NHC—to define neurohacking. Personally, I prefer organismic metaphors to computer metaphors when thinking about the mind and body. But neurohacking has a much nicer ring to it than “totalizing transformative depth- praxis,” for instance. Who would join a totalizing transformative depth-praxis collective?
You either hack your own mind and brain or they get hacked for you…
Truth is that when it comes to the use of neuroscience and psychology to transform human consciousness the train has already left the station. I’ve written a book about how psychology and neuroscience have long been used in the service of social control in schools. Advertisers have been using psychology since the birth of the field and use it even more now, as they help build psychometric backends that track your social networking activity to customize ad delivery. The governments and corporations that control large swaths of the mass media are also not ignorant of findings from the modern sciences of mind regarding the malleability of human preferences and perceptions. Tomorrow’s pioneers in the technologies of virtual and augmented reality are already consulting neuroscientists and psychologist in the design of future computer-brain interfaces. So you either neurohack yourself into autonomy or you get neurohacked into conformity, by the media, schools, psychiatry, advertising, or the emerging technologies of augmented and virtual reality.
However, if you are neurohacking to become smarter, or get better at your job, or find happiness, you are confusing means for ends. These are all aspects of one’s full humanity, parts which can be “improved” in isolation, but which must ultimately hang together in some kind of coherence with the rest of you. Make one of these an end-in- itself and you are confusing a fragment of yourself for the whole. The result will be negative externalities and diminishing returns from efforts. Get smarter and you may quit your job. Get better at your job and you may become unhappy. Tinkering with parts in the short run backfires. The neurohacker has his eye on the whole and the long run, not some sort run gain like “productivity.”
All this talk of “increasing productivity” begs the question of what exactly one is working to produce. Too much of the conversation surrounding biohacking and the human potential movement is about how to “get the competitive edge” or “unfair advantage”—both terms that assume one is playing a zero-sum game. Knowledge and practices that “upgrade” our body and mind should be used to liberate our capacities, freeing us to create new and better kinds of value, new forms of work and life, new social systems. We must not merely seek to harden ourselves to better function as cogs within the many dysfunctional social systems that surround us. Neurohacking must include a critical discourse on the ethics of self-instrumentalization. At times we all feel compelled to make our own body and mind into a kind of tool fit for social utility. We can mistakenly hack ourselves into a shape needed to be of service to ideals we would not choose in our better moments. This is a kind of counter-revolutionary co-optation of neurohacking’s potential—something that through the creation of the NHC we are intending to end.
The neurohacker’s commitment to self-authorship expands outward from the self and eventually touches on all aspects of culture and society. When neurohackers get together, say to form a collective, they need to remember the root of what they are doing and create a self-authoring organization. Indeed, with its penchant for commodification, gadgetry, and expensive ingestibles, neurohacking itself could be readily co-opted by largely commercial interests, and become only a small quirky branch of the pharmaceutical and medical technologies industries. Instead we must adopt post-corporatist ethos and design and empower each other through the dissemination of knowledge and best practices. Importantly, the best things in neurohacking are free, starting with your own brain, which is simply a good child of the universe. Meaningful and transformative relationships, mediation, and the natural world are abundant free of charge. Nutrition and exercise are incontestably the most basic elements of brain health, learning, and emotional well-being. Those elements of neurohacking that can be bought and sold, such as nutraceuticals, bio-feedback machines, or quantified-self apps—these ought to be carefully curated in light of an ethos that emphasizes benefits and value over profit and appearances. The post-corporatist ethos of NHC is without a doubt one of its most important features because it assures that we don’t confuse the goal of businesses (making money) with the goals of neurohacking (liberating human potential and self-authorship).
The body is politics. This notion is as old as civilization. The most basic right a human has is to the integrity of their own body. Neurohacking is rooted in each person’s right to sovereignty over their essential organismic integrity. Neurohackers declare independence from deficient systems providing inadequate healthcare and food. Neurohackers declare independence from simplistic and stigmatizing medical labels and industrial-era ontologies of (dis)embodiment. Neurohackers declare independence from the grip of industries that profit from human disease and are thus disincentivized from promoting human wellness. Neurohackers are a diverse group of DIY citizen scientists who are finding ways to free humanity from its current regimes of bio-power. Neurohackers are reclaiming the brain and mind from its cooptation as part of the push towards an increasing politicization, bureaucratization, and commodification of humanity’s biological substrate.
Dr. Stein serves as Chair of the Education Program at Meridian University and Academic Director of the activist think tank at the Center for Integral Wisdom. He sits on the board of the Society for Consciousness Studies and is a Research Member of the Neurohacker Collective. Zak is also Co-Founder of Lectica Inc, a non-profit dedicated to using the science of learning to redesign standardized testing infrastructures. His book Social Justice and Educational Measurement (Routledge, 2016) looks at the injustices of contemporary high stakes testing and has been called “original and powerful… a work of genius… philosophy at its best.” Zak’s second book, Education in the Anthropocene: Essays on Schools, Technology, and Society will be published in early 2017. For more see: www.zakstein.org