Neuroapocalypse: From Self to Neuroself, Part 3


Continued from Part 2

But now comes a dark cloud.

Lately, in America, the obsession with privacy has taken on the tenor of hysteria.  The middle class, especially, has felt the self lose its purchase upon the institutions it created.  The corporations, we sense vaguely, have leveraged freedom to gain practical control over those middle managers and baristas to whom they remain, in legal principle, equal.   The theory of the self was not conceived for agents of such power.

But nevertheless it was conceived.  And because the self is immaterial, it cannot be defined as human.  So the baristas have no protection from their employers; the corporations gain the rights of selves without their biological limitations, and imbalance and assymetry rule the day.

Americans have begun to sense their government, the penultimate guardian and guarantor of their metaphysic, will fail to save them.  In despair the middle class is now in full-blown retreat.  The rallying cry of privacy has spread as though it might still protect us.  Our treasure spent, our bodies broke, our property stolen, our energy quite gone, we double-down on schoolyard narcissism.  We move into the panic room of privacy as though to make a final stand.

It will not work.  They won’t survive.  The door won’t lock.  Or rather, the bad guy has the key.  Or is already inside.  The greatest paradigm shift in the history of the west is now upon us.

We are going to lose the self.

If you listen closely you will hear it.   A Trojan Horse of sorts has been wheeled inside the City of the Self, and in its belly waits to kill our privacy white noise.

White noise.  The pure uncertainty of static – chaos, entropy, destroyer of information.  White noise waits to run right through our city, taking all we thought we knew of selves and personhood.  It waits to whisper through our internet, our social networks, our diaries.  The uncertainty is gathering and massing, storing itself, waiting to erase.

We always thought we knew our enemy: if you loved freedom, equality; or if you were left wing, the other way around.  Someone would be the death of us – investment bankers or socialists, tax or welfare cheats.  But the enemy was not known.  It is as in all the ancient fairy tales; the enemy is monstrous.  Neuroscience comes upon us now with alien intention.  Neuroapocalypse is here.

To listen to the apologists in the newspapers and glossy blogs, to the glad-handers and Pop Neuroscientists, one would hardly know the brain was anything but the self’s greatest ally.  In the grip of some counter-phobic fugue the neurocredulists act like teenage fanboys, slobbering over the naked organ’s folds and crevices as though it were Pirelli’s calendar.  They trumpet each new discovery like the home announcer at some blowout baseball game.

They are mistaken.  They have taken brain for a Rorschach test, and then believed their associations.  In truth the neural mechanism is inhospitable to psychology.  Its oxytocin and amygdalae, its lobes and cells and cortices, are in their aggregate mechanical.  It has no place for folk psychology.  To think that our words will fall like gentle rain upon it – hippocampus, amygdala and, and be absorbed – is to play the fool.   Not in a single medical textbook will you ever find an arrow pointing at some structure shouting “see! The self is here!”  Self plays no role whatsoever in our explanations of our cures.  Today and ever after the brain is no different  to science than the heart.  It is a Grand Contraption.  It has no agency, no intention, no experience.  It has certainly none of the self, or what the self replaced, the soul.

These days I say such things to my friends and students and they look at me and puzzle.  Am I not myself a neuroimager, a million bucks in grants, employed to do it seven years full time, three in training before that, twenty thousand hours with that organ, and in the Ivy League at that?  I study – they remind me – the neuroscience of grief and sadness, the deepest human experience. I publish papers, know the field.  Surely, they say, surely you must believe that you will find for the self inside the brain a final home? To which I reply rueful, I think you mean a final resting place.

The self-owning self will die; I say this as a full insider.  I stared into the great maw of neuroscience for twenty thousand hours, hoping I might find a place for it. But now I see it is quite the opposite.  From its innards comes upon us pure uncertainty, to kill the self in our world, far from home.

Neuroapocalypse is nigh.

Continue to Part 4

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011. I am currently in private practice in NYC.