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The Dark Side Of Brain Science: Seattle Pair's 'Thought Experiment' Plays Out Onstage

Here’s a thought experiment: You’re a scientist researching a treatment for depression, and you’ve become profoundly depressed. Your work is slow and painstaking, and involves methodical experiments with monkeys. It’s likely years before anything you might discover would become available for people.

And yet, you’re sure you’re on to something — a promising new approach that could help turn back clinical depression. Do you keep plodding along with your monkeys? Or do you just do the experiment on yourself?

And what if the treatment involved drilling a hole in your head and implanting an electrical device in your brain?

Thought Experiments On The Question Of Being Human

Those are a few of the questions — and not necessarily even the hardest ones — posed in a one-act play called "Brain Trust." The play was written by Seattle playwright Rachel Atkins in collaboration with Eberhard Fetz, a neurophysiology professor at the University of Washington.

They make up one of five pairs of contributors to a theater project called Thought Experiments on the Question of Being Human, produced by Seattle-based Infinity Box Theater. The plays deal with all sorts of tricky scenarios in brain research, like erasing memories or malfunctioning prosthetics. Each creative pair consists of a Seattle playwright and a scientist from UW’s Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering.

Scientists at the center and elsewhere are coming to understand the brain as something like a subtle machine, one that can talk to other machines. They’re working to unlock how neural engineering can help a paralyzed person communicate or an amputee use her thoughts to move her leg.

But once you start tinkering with someone’s brain, it’s not hard to imagine thornier, even darker possibilities. That’s where the plays come in.

Changing ‘Our Most Essential Self’

Atkins and Fetz took up the question of what it means to change a person’s brain through a neural implant, using something called deep brain stimulation. It’s a procedure in which doctors insert electrodes into someone’s brain and use them to stimulate certain neural circuits.

“It’s one thing to give us mobility to a paralyzed limb or something that feels like just about our bodies. But the idea of changing our brains and what feels like our most essential self? That’s tricky,” Atkins said.

As in all the plays, "Brain Trust" uses fiction and speculation to open up the critical human questions embedded in the science. 

Atkins and Fetz created their characters Miles and Candace, a pair of married scientists who work together testing deep-brain stimulation as therapy for depression. Once Miles decides he’s discovered a new brain area to stimulate, he’s determined to test it on himself.

Candace is appalled at what would be a hugely risky and reckless breach of protocol. But midway through the play, we discover that she has little choice but to help Miles; he’s already begun drilling into his own skull.

Neuroethics And Science Fiction

Almost nothing in this play is especially far-fetched. The technology exists, as do a host of others in the field that have great potential but raise troubling questions.

The center at UW isn’t ignoring those questions, but rather tackling them head-on. Professional ethicists at the center are advancing the neuroethics alongside the science. The plays are a kind of extracurricular complement to that work.

Sara Goering heads up the “neuroethics thrust” there, and she says this play gets at a key question about neural engineering.

“Should we be allowing people to change themselves in this fundamental way — through trial and error, self-stimulation — without having some sort of regulation or oversight on what’s going on there? Because it can be dangerous,” Goering said.

The plays, then, become a tool to speculate about the dilemmas that could someday come up, and to play out the implications of bleeding-edge science.

“I just think it’s really powerful, because the artists are automatically going to go for how these technologies will affect humans and our relationships. So just like science fiction has a longstanding tradition of exploring our possible futures and thinking about the downsides as well as the upsides, so, too, I think the plays did a great job of doing that,” she said.

‘I Realize That I Am God’

"Brain Trust" is shot through with that ambivalence. It comes to a head when the audience discovers that Miles’ gambit isn’t a total failure; in fact, it may have been too successful.

Jolts to the ventral tegmental area have been known to produce euphoria. For Miles, it’s given him a rather inflated view of himself.

“I realize,” he tells his stunned wife, “that I am God.”

It’s just one way in which engineering the human mind can have complex consequences, some of which society may not be ready for.

And that’s the point of the plays, and of neuroethics more broadly: To start the conversations before we find ourselves mired in this dilemma, with metal in our brains and a God complex.

And Fetz and Atkins may get to toy with their thought experiment a little bit more. Atkins is hoping to develop the one-act into a full-scale play, and dig even deeper into what it means to engineer the human mind.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.