The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part III: Flowers for Algernon

In Part II of this series, we considered artificial intelligent in the context of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Space Odyssey, intelligence is arguably seen as an end in-and-of itself, rather than a means to an end. Flowers for Algernon, a short story later turned into a novel by author Daniel Keyes, questions that assumption while considering the ethical implications of artificially manipulating a person’s intelligence.

The protagonist of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon, a janitor who begins the story with intellectual disability, or mental retardation as it was referred to at the time when Keyes wrote the story. Gordon’s intellectual disability is a result of phenylketonuria, a real life metabolic disorder resulting from mutations of the gene encoding phenylalanine hydroxylase, an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid phenylalanine. An inability to metabolize this amino acid causes its toxic build up in the brain, often resulting in a low IQ and other problems, such as mental disorders.

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The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part I: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Let’s imagine something crazy.

What if each person in China was ordered to simulate a neuron in a brain, making an enormous “China brain?” Every participant in this grand experiment would be given a two-way radio to communicate with other people, similar to how neurons talk to each other. Some people play the role of “effector neurons,” which control parts of a giant robot, just as motor neurons in our nervous system control bodily movements.

Basically, imagine that the entire nation of China became a giant robot’s brain. What might happen?

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The Epigenetic Legacy of Trauma

The evening of November 9th, 1938, began with typical fall solemnity for many Jews living across Germany: closing up their shops and businesses, returning home from school, and preparing family suppers. It would end with terror, as mobs ransacked storefronts, assaulted Jews on the street, and set fire to their homes. That terrible night would be known to history by the glittering debris of shattered windows lining the streets: “Kristallnacht.”

Kristallnacht, and the subsequent atrocities of Germany’s holocaust against the Jews, changed the world. Modernity had to forever acknowledge a surprising and abhorrent crime. Societies would undergo lasting changes, attempting to prevent such crimes, and the victims themselves, sadly, would suffer long-lasting impacts to their psyche.Continue reading

OCD Stress Knowing Neurons

A “Little Bit” of OCD: When Words Trivialize a Disorder

Sheldon Cooper, a beloved character in a television series, knocks on a door exactly three times before his roommate opens it — and if the door is opened earlier, he still persists his triad of door knocks. He fixates on occupying the exact same spot on the sofa every single time calling it “his” spot. As an audience, we watch his actions and surmise, “He has a little bit of OCD.”

The reality is: there is no such thing as a “little bit” when it comes to obsessive-compulsive disorders.Continue reading

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

Our thoughts are often mysterious to us. You probably don’t know why you suddenly think about a Komodo dragon while sitting in traffic or Citizen Kane while shopping for groceries. Such moments remind us that we are each the emergent property of an amazingly complex organ that never stops surprising us. Nonetheless, we usually feel in control of our thoughts. Even with the occasional unexpected thought, life continues as normal.Continue reading

The Slippery Slope of Dishonesty

A kid stealing candy in a convenience store grows up to be a convicted criminal. A husband who flirts with a coworker ends up as a serial cheater. A politician telling a few “white lies” to his or her constituents is eventually convicted of fraud. These are all extreme — but plausible — scenarios where dishonesty might escalate over time, resulting in dramatic and life-changing consequences. But how far does this slippery slope actually go? How can science help us answer this question?Continue reading

Mental Health is a Part of Health: A Conversation with Shekhar Saxena

In a recent presidential town hall, President Obama looked directly into the camera and made a powerful statement about mental health. “If something inside you feels like it’s wounded, it’s just like a physical injury. You’ve got to go get help,” said the leader of the free world.

Buried under the weight of a massive social stigma, seeking help or even acknowledging a mental illness can be an excruciating task. How, then, can we help ourselves and our loved ones achieve emotional and mental well-being?Continue reading