It is not hard to imagine a futuristic dystopian society. Constructing dystopias seems to be one of the main methods by which those of a sci-fi persuasion can offer poignant social commentary. However, some of these dystopias are far more horrific than others. One would be hard pressed to find a dystopia more controversial than the one presented in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (adapted from Anthony Burgess's novel of the same name); watching Alex DeLarge and his small gang of droogs terrorize futuristic Britain with "ultra-violence" is more than enough to make your insides squirm in revulsion. In perhaps the film's most infamous scene, Alex and his droogs beat a man so severely as to cripple him for life, and then proceed to rape his wife - all while happily singing "Singin' in the Rain". And yet there's hope for this futuristic Britain, a way to clean ultra-violence from the streets by rehabilitating those delinquent youths like Alex: an experimental aversion therapy called the Ludovico technique. If you were in charge of such a dystopia as the one depicted in A Clockwork Orange, where the fabric of society was being viciously ripped apart by rampant ultra-violence, wouldn't you be desperate for a way to stop it? And rather than just locking up criminals and social delinquents, wouldn't it be better if you could help those individuals by eradicating their anti-social behavior? Wouldn't this allow your dystopia to rapidly evolve into a utopia?
For those familiar with the film, we know that it's not just the use of ultra-violence that makes the film so controversial. Controversy also lies in the film's social commentary on morality and behavioral psychology, which is far too deep and expansive of a discussion for the scopes of this post. However, A Clockwork Orange does raise an interesting question (in fact, it raises many interesting questions): how close are scientists to understanding human behavior? Are they close enough to know which parts of the brain are responsible for certain behaviors? Are they close enough to actually control behavior?
The answer: yes. Scientists can switch social behaviors on and off as easily as flicking a light switch, at least in mice.
In an effort to understand what causes social-behavior deficits in humans, particularly those with social disorders like autism and schizophrenia, researchers from Stanford University are using pulses of light to toggle social behaviors on and off in mice. Led by Dr. Karl Deisseroth, researchers used optogenetics to test an established yet untested hypothesis about social dysfunction: that "elevation of in the ratio of cortical cellular excitation to inhibition (cellular E/I balance), for example through increased activity in excitatory neurons or reduction in inhibitory neuron function, could give rise to the social and cognitive deficits observed in diseases such as autism" (Yizhar et al, Nature, 2011). So, "when facing social stimulus people with social disorders experience an imbalance wherein too many excitatory nerves fire (or not enough inhibitory nerves fire) resulting in a kind of over-responsiveness" (Dillow, Popular Science). In order to test this theory, scientists used optogenetics to bioengineer excitatory and inhibitory nerve cells in the parts of the brain responsible for social function to fire on command. Specifically, the researchers looked at excitatory and inhibitory nerve cells in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in processes such as planning, execution, personality and social behavior. When compared to normal mice, the experimental mice exhibited no difference in their anxiety levels, their tendency to move around, or their curiosity about new objects. However, the experimental mice whose medial prefrontal cortex excitability had been optogenetically stimulated lost all interest in engaging with other mice. Their social behavior was largely abolished. Further, the brains of these mice showed the same gamma-oscillation pattern that is observed among many autistic and schizophrenic patients, meaning that this study could have implications in getting to the root of the behavior seen in those with social deficits, like those with autism. It's possible that this research could provide valuable information for finding a treatment for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia.
Researchers at CalTech, too, have been altering mouse behavior. They have located the brain's trigger for aggression, a cluster of cells in the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH), an area that previous studies have associated with sexual behavior. It's not so surprising that aggressive and sexual behavior stem from the same area of the brain (at least, it's not so surprising when considered in the context of A Clockwork Orange); they come from intermingled yet separate clusters of neurons in the VMH. By identifying these clusters of neurons in the VMH, scientists found that aggression is triggered by a specific tangle of neurons, which they could turn on and off in mice by using light (after making the region photosensitive via a process of inserting custom-made viruses carrying a modified piece of DNA into the brain). When the nerve cluster was excited, no matter what they put in the cage with the experimental mouse, the mouse would attack - be it another male mouse, a female mouse, or even a dummy mouse. The opposite also held true; when the nerve cluster was silenced, the experimental mouse was completely non-aggressive, even in the presence of a threatening male. And, because mice have cognitive function and physiology that is quite similar to ours, then perhaps aggression in humans, too, could be toggled on and off like a light switch.
These findings could have quite the positive potential for us humans. Not only does it allow us to better understand our own minds, but it could offer cures for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia. And in the future, who knows? Maybe scientists will discover switches for other behavioral problems as well, such as anxiety or phobias or OCD or ADHD.
And yet, we shouldn't ignore the warnings provided to us through (albeit potentially paranoid) social commentary. Though A Clockwork Orange offers an extreme example of behavioral modification, it is still an example of behavioral modification nonetheless, and a real possibility of what could happen if scientific advancements are taken out of control and used to pursue corrupt political agendas. On what A Clockwork Orange is all about, Kubrick said the following: that it is "a social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioral psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots." Again, extreme. We shouldn't live in a paranoid static state of fear that every scientific discovery made could lend itself to ultimately crippling humanity in some manner. The pursuit of knowledge should not be hindered by fear or ignorance; finding cures for behavioral disorders like autism and schizophrenia would be ultimately beneficial, and would help many people live better, more fulfilling lives. However, it should always by the obligation of the scientist to make sure that the truths they discover are not somehow corrupted to advance personal agendas, and to make sure that they educate the public as to their discoveries. To combine the words of Francis Bacon and Spider-man: knowledge is power, and with great power comes great responsibility.