Once upon a time, not long ago, I listened to a couple podcasts by Snap Judgment* (fabulous podcast – stories set to a beat, check it out), and one of them was about the guy who became a musical genius by injuring his brain in a pool accident. His head injury resulted in his sudden ability to compose and play beautiful pieces on the piano, having had no previous knowledge of how to play the instrument at all. He claims that he can see a rolling black and white pattern in front of him that directs his hands on the keys, or something like that. It was truly amazing. It got me thinking about the human brain, how it works, the essence of who we are and if that can be changed.
Brains are weird. I have no knowledge of neuroscience so it completely baffles me that someone could hit their head, in just the right spot, and suddenly become a musical genius. What evolutionary purpose could that possibly hold? Does that mean that musical ability is an inherent human trait lying within all of our brains, sometimes turned on or off to varying degrees? Why? Why do humans need music? It seems to have no purpose, does it? Plus: how could a brain injury result in a genius pianist? What if pianos didn’t exist? Would the brain injury have manifested musical talent in some other way, or just driven the man mad? So many questions! Humans are so interesting.
Incredible brains. What’s lying in yours? Mine? Everyone’s? Can we figure out a way to make everyone better? Smarter? More talented? If we could, would we? Would we want to? Should we? Would it be an ethical undertaking to improve human abilities?
The podcast I listened to before the story of the brain-injury induced musical genius, also on Snap Judgement*, was about a radio station in Daesh-controlled Mosul and the man who set it up, why he did so, and what happened as a result. It was an extremely dangerous thing to do, set up a radio to help people communicate and feel connected, without permission from the extremist regime. This brave man risked his life for the radio. Hearing about how awful life is under the thumb of the Daesh, clearly demonstrated how abhorrent some humans can be.
Daesh executed a citizen of Mosul who used to call in to the rogue radio station and make jokes about them. He said the streets would need to be sanitized after they left because of their filth. They executed him by dunking his whole body in chemical sanitizer, and broadcast it on the internet with the name of the radio station on the screen so that everyone knew why. Absolutely Horrific.
How do humans get like that? What goes wrong in their brains that makes them turn on their own species and commit such sick horrific acts against individuals and groups? When I was a kid I naively thought those types of atrocities were a thing of the past, done by Nazis and slave owners and Vikings and stuff. How wrong I was. We can see so many examples of human atrocities in current events now: Daesh, Syria, The Rohingya Crisis, in what White Supremacists in America (and beyond) aim for, and the actions of the North Korean regime. Humans can be truly awful beasts. Why? Surely it is a defect of the brain for social creatures to turn on one another and commit murder, rape, torture and mutilations.
Can we fix those brains? Can we alter them the way a man’s brain was altered in a pool accident, taking him from ordinary to musical genius? Can we fix the brains of bad people and turn them good? The brains that seek power and fail to see others as equal and as deserving of life as themselves. Can we fix the loss of compassion, empathy, sympathy, social skills? Have they lost their humanity so much that they fail to see it in others? To those who commit atrocities, maybe everyone just becomes a meat-sack in the way of their success, and life is a thing that can be wasted in the pursuit of power. Can we fix that? If we could, would we?
Would it be OK to take away free will in the case of people who have lost their connection to humanity and their respect for life itself?
If you stop respecting life, if you take it away from others, denying their freedom/right to exist, maybe taking away your free will is justifiable. Administering rehabilitation, swiftly, by altering the brain. Is it wrong? No need for punishment/imprisonment if we could literally change a person’s mind and cure them of their lust for power, racism, hatred, disregard for others etc. Wouldn’t that be nice?
If we could cure bad people, then we wouldn’t need jails or any other type of punishments, right? Ahh…there’s a problem. Besides the ethical and practical problems of performing brain alterations on horrible brains, we humans have a bit of a love of vengeance, don’t we? So imagine if we could round up all the members of Daesh and get at their brains, or get Kim Jong-un into the operating room and give him a lobotomy, or otherwise administer a cure for the affliction that makes a person act so terribly, would we? Once they were cured, we would have no need to punish them, they would be a better person. We should let former murderers, mutilators, rapists, committers of genocides go on and live their new lives, right?
If you’re saying “no, no no! they need to be punished! even though they’re fixed, they must pay for their crimes!” Then what do you think punishment is for? If it’s for deterrence, then surely it is not needed as they have been cured of their affliction, if it is to deter others, then isn’t it wrong to use (now) good people to put on a show? Or are you lusting for revenge – they did bad things and it doesn’t matter whether or not their brain has been fixed, you want to hurt them. You want to hurt those bad guys like they hurt so many others. Maybe you think the bad guys should be killed, slowly and painfully so they can feel a piece of what their victims felt. What does that say about about your brain?
Don’t worry, the attraction to vengeance is pretty common among humans, you’re not alone. What does that say about us? What does it say when we are willing to inflict harm on those who harm us? Is the infliction of harm only bad in certain circumstances but OK in others? If we can justify committing the same acts we condemn in order to get revenge, then doesn’t it make the acts themselves neutral and the intent all that matters? Our brains can justify murder in some circumstances and abhor it at others. Incredible.
Maybe all of our brains could use a little tweaking, I hope when it’s my turn for a tune-up, I transform into a musical genius who doesn’t overthink things.
*Snap Judgments episodes referred to in this piece: “Sudden Savant” and “Hey DJ”