In the information age, personalization and customization are remarkable themes in technology, goods, and services. There is no one brand of toothpaste, or one kind of refrigerator — there are hundreds of each. There is no one kind of phone — there are hundreds of them, each able to be tailored with cases, covers, backgrounds, and apps.
And now, there are even designer babies: Parents are able to choose their children’s hair and eye color (though according to Wired, the Los Angeles clinic offering these services was recently shut down amid public outcry).
The potential for humans to modulate their emotions via technology is just as radical.
To an extent, we do this already with psychiatric medication. Many people are tempted to view those who use these drugs — even under the guidance of mental health professionals — as some kind of “cheating,” as a way of not truly dealing with the emotions themselves. Perhaps this is the case for some. It is, however, relatively clear that this tendency of yearning to gain control over our emotional experience did not spring forth at the advent of Prozac.
It might be said that nearly all of our choices are molded by how we feel now, how we have felt before, and how we want to feel in the future. If we have burned ourselves on the stove, we run for cold water. If we have been hurt in a romantic relationship before, we may take precautions in our involvement next time. If we have felt acceptance and excitement at a new job, we may throw ourselves into our work.
In the future, might it be possible to feel however we want, whenever we want?
Biotechnology, nanotechnology, and neurology at least point to the possibility of this being the case. In fact, initial “tinkering” with emotion is nearly 60 years old. In 1954, Peter Milner and James Olds implanted an electrode into the pleasure center of rats’ brains. Hooking the electrode up to a “pleasure button,” the scientists found that the rats would repeatedly press the button as much as possible — giving up food, water, and sex until they eventually died, frantically pursuing direct and intense pleasure.
Even given the avoidance of these very obvious dangers of diminishing returns on brain chemicals, tinkering with humans’ affective experience is a very slippery slope. Having an ability to feel “better,” or more energetic seems like a good idea for increasing our productivity. If we can overcome a common cold or a troubling situation at home with a kind of harmless emotional boost, is this wrong in itself?
The danger is not just negative side effects to the brain itself (which we might become smart enough to overcome), but a more insidious dependence on this boost. If we disregard food and sex for this boost, we may end up like the aforementioned rats.
Haven’t we all wished to control our sleeping patterns? Some people wish to overcome sleep altogether, while nearly all of us wish we could go to sleep or wake up on command. An implant that allows us to shut off and turn on consciousness as we please could seem like an initially harmless enhancement. Would it not just be one tiny step further to be able to control our feelings of hunger, or our sense of time (being able to fast-forward through a particularly boring wait in the bank line, or high school reunion)? This too might prove treacherous.
With the continual advancements in science, it seems as though psychology will eventually converge with, and help guide, other developing fields.
Technological progress alone — even with a much deeper understanding of neurology — is not complete without an understanding of the mind, its balance, its function, and the upkeep of its well-being that psychology can contribute. Mental health professionals someday may find themselves not only treating and helping individuals — or even striving for changes in policy — but as a guiding force and contributor to the enhancement of human experience.