Is Cognitive Tourism a Near Frontier?

Visiting minds that are profoundly—rather than defectively—human.

Posted Nov 29, 2018

 Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, built by Ludwig II aka Mad King Ludwig.
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Imagine if we could be cognitive tourists, seeing through the eyes of others, careening along their neural pathways with the brio of a kid on a roller coaster: exultant, unnerved, but confident that it will end well. Would we be more empathic to other people's struggles if we experienced their minds in vivo, or less so because we could return to our own at any point? 

When I mention this brand of “tourism,” people are split as to whether it would foster empathy for those living with stigmatized mental health conditions or would simply turn life into a psychiatric amusement park. This split is not surprising: people are essentially divided as to whether they deem thought detection scary or scintillating, with privacy the chief concern. 

It's intriguing to consider little-discussed applications of thought detection, though, given the ambitious goals of neuroscientists who are presently developing interfaces to decipher neural code. Helping locked-in patients to communicate is a huge initial breakthrough. Reading complex thoughts (as opposed to answers evoked by specific questions) is a later-stage gambit and one that is sometimes deemed over-invasive. But access to complex thought offers critical real-time information about mental state, mood and behavior, and may lay the groundwork for a more experiential understanding of the contorted thinking that characterizes psychiatric disorders.

For sure, a healthy individual already has a visceral grasp on mental health struggles. There is a universality to the most difficult human emotions. Everyone experiences rage, jealousy, sadness, and despair. Our darkest hours are the baseline for what some endure with unrelenting frequency and intensity—conditions such as suicidality and borderline personality disorder (BPD), both explored in the December print edition of PT

Too, molecular biology confirms that most conditions lie on a spectrum. As behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin explains in this same edition, everyone has some genes associated with schizophrenia: “It’s not us versus them. It’s just us.” 

Why, then, the lack of empathy for those who experience states with which we can all identify, at least to some degree? In the case of BPD, a tension exists between despair as a transient state and as a more pervasive trait. Perhaps precisely because the average person can weather emotional storms, it is harder to relate to someone who seemingly cannot control his or her emotions. Their turmoil is a theme park ride from which we prefer to walk away. If we had access to the minute-by-minute experience of a borderline, we'd better grasp why a person could not overcome these self-destructive beliefs and impulses. 

This possibility is far from science fiction, as “In Your Head” explores. I’d love to someday see tools that viscerally channel the plights of people with BPD and other diagnoses. It would be one way to support those who feel the pangs of negative emotions more deeply than do others. We can do this if we see such people as profoundly—rather than defectively—human.