In October of 2009, I heard Dr. Kenneth Harris give a talk at Imperial College's Neuro-science Technology Symposium on what I will call the capitalist brain. Now by this I do not mean the brain of a capitalist nor even the brain as molded by one (e.g., the news media has popularized the developing practices of neuro-marketing, which use brain imaging techniques and other tools of cognitive science to better foster brand loyalty). Harris was proposing what he described as an untested theory - that the brain's growth and development might resemble capitalist market exchange.
The talk was called The Neural Marketplace: a Theory of Brain Organization through Retroaxonal Communication. It was one of several that followed a poster session where graduate students from Imperial and elsewhere in London's neuroscience community presented their completed research projects. Harris began his lecture by asking what the brain is for, then stating, dryly, that "as we all know" the brain is meant for muscular contractions and the regulation of glands, and this requires that it process sensory information. The big question in cognitive science, he said, is how the "internal representations" necessary for such activity could exist in the brain given the actual structure and activity of neurons, which appear to be unidirectional and structurally rather uncomplicated. As an example he referenced a sort of cognitive metaphor popularly known as the “Halle Berry cell,” which suggests that even phenomena as specific as the faces of famous actresses might have particular cells designated to them that fire when they appear. Somewhere in that cell the representation of Halle Berry somehow exists, Harris told the audience. But how is this possible?
Harris claimed to prefer models that stress behavioral salience, i.e., connections which survive and end up making up the structure of the brain are ones favored because of their consequences outside the brain itself. This means that understanding the organization of the brain requires understanding how behavioral inputs are translated into cognitive structure. Within cognitive science, one solution to this dilemma is to propose the existence of a “hidden layer” between inputs and outputs, one which could develop a sort of memory about connection strengths and create a selective bias for some connections/inputs over others based on feedback mechanisms. The problem, others have suggested, is that there is no evidence of a hidden layer of this sort. Neurons don’t talk backward, electrical signals only go one way, so intervening neurons between inputs and outputs would not offer a way of “learning” through feedback to favor particular connections. Harris’ proposal is that neurons communicate in more ways than through electrical signals and that this has been overemphasized by “us” simply because it stands out and is easy to measure. He lists a wide range of materials that neurons exchange and release that could serve to backchannel inputs that have satisfactory outputs (behaviorally speaking), i.e, that are good to listen to. After proposing different means by which this could happen, which he will test in his new lab at Imperial, Harris presented a new model of neuron communication as one of a “market economy” wherein neuron “entrepreneurs” compete for attention from other neuron “consumers” that bias their selection and either favor them – “buying into what they have to say” – or ignoring them and letting them wither and die. If Halle Berry cells continue to exist, it is because they are considered behaviorally salient enough to warrant survival above other, less salient representations. Through a supply chain system, where different inputs are distributed across a variety of neuronal connections, a behavioral “product” eventually emerges that either allows the organism to survive and successfully compete in its environment or itself wither and die. Here competition between neurons is the basis for successful competition between organisms and species.
Ignoring for the moment how it is that recognizing the face of Halle Berry helps ensure survival, Harris' talk is clearly reminiscent of the socio-biological rhetoric critiqued by Marshall Sahlins in the Uses and Abuses of Biology (1976). Sahlins points out how much biological metaphors of competition and fitness borrow from capitalist ideologies about human nature. For example, one could just as easily describe the brain as a planned communist economy ("from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs"). After all, it is never individual messages but the totality of cognition that is behaviorally salient. As psychologist J.J. Gibson, proponent of the ecological theory of vision, liked to point out, vision is only made meaningful as it occurs through multisensory engagement with the environment. Perhaps some neurons better serve the whole network as information transmitters while others are sacrificed by macrophagic glial cells for the greater good. Indeed, glial cells would not outnumber neurons if regulation of the neural marketplace were less important than exchange.
But there is more to this story. Harris' talk hints at a shift in new bio-scientific research whereby the neuron, like the gene before it, is becoming both subject and object of investment. If neurons are being imagined as producers and consumers in a neural economy, it is partly because like many other body parts, the brain has become a frontier of speculative investment and hype surrounding bio-capital and human enhancement. New kinds of experimentation are being heavily funded by corporations and states which endeavor to make converging technologies a new site of value production. As with many techno-scientific innovations, the U.S. military is firmly in the lead. In late 2001, less than a mile from the recently attacked Pentagon, a group of prominent scientists and politicians met to discuss the future applications of cognitive science, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information science in the enhancement of human beings, state security, and the production of wealth. Of all the technological transformations imagined in the final document they produced, the only to come to fruition thus far are the unmanned aerial vehicles (or "drones") controversially deployed along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But public narratives of enhancement only rarely discuss military applications, far more common are the possible medical implications of converging technologies (although these too may receive funding from the military industrial complex). The Symposium and Harris' talk were sponsored by Imperial College's Institute of Biomedical Engineering, a postgraduate research facility which aims to apply "advances in technology to enable people to lead independent and productive lives despite illness, ageing and disability." The co-discover of the double-helix structure of DNA, James Watson readily embraces the religious implications of these possibilities of second creation: "In the past, we thought our destinies lies in the stars, now it lies mainly in the genes … for the genetic dice will continue to inflict cruel fates on all or many individuals and their families who do not deserve this damnation. Decency demands that someone must rescue them from genetic hells. If we don´t play God, who will.” This is one vision of the future of human enhancement, another is designer babies and Gattaca. To the extent that converging technologies are being developed to remake not only the body but the mind, “neuro-capital” could be proposed as a novel category of financial investment in the materials and processes of brains and their application in the uneven development of the human economy. If one outcome of investing in and extracting neuro-capital could be possible cure for neuro-degeneration, such as dementia and Alzheimer's, another is the so-called brain gain revolution and rising disparities in who can afford the modifications necessary for elite education. One could argue that the brain is not only a site upon which cultural models of human nature and society are projected - as in Marshall Sahlins' critique. Rather, it is increasingly an object through which human possibilities and hierarchies may be created anew. Perhaps one day through the force of new soldiers, cognitively enhanced to spread the free market ideologies in their heads abroad.