Invisibilia: “The Remote Control Brain”

Like the best episodes of Invisibilia, “The Remote Control Brain” feels both personal and universal.

If you could implant a device in your brain that would make you a little happier, a little smarter and a little more confident, would you? Should you?

It sounds like the premise to a science-fiction story, but it’s one this week’s Invisiblia suggests researchers are close to making a reality. The episode from co-host Alix Spiegel follows a girl named Megan. She suffers from severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but her symptoms nearly vanished after she took part in an experiment with deep-brain stimulation.

With deep-brain stimulation, researchers implant electrodes into the brain which are powered by a battery pack concealed near the collar bone. A remote-control can adjust the voltage the electrodes send through the brain. Prior to the treatment, Megan lived a homebound life and contemplated suicide . With the device, she enjoys what sounds like a normal, productive life. She’s married. She has a job.

The episode opens with Megan talking to a doctor about an adjustment to the device. It malfunctions at some point, and she breaks down in tears. She asks the person recording the session to leave, so she can discuss her feelings with her doctor in private. Eventually things are dialed in and Megan returns to normal.

This is the second episode of Invisibilia‘s fourth season to deal with an unusual treatment for an illness. An earlier episode, “The Fifth Vital Sign”, followed a girl with amplified pain syndrome through an extreme treatment regimen that sometimes felt as if it bordered on sadism but greatly improved her life.

Like “The Fifth Vital Sign” and the best episodes of Invisibilia, “The Remote Control Brain” feels both personal and universal, raising several questions in the mind of the listener. Co-host Hanna Rosin compared it to a George Saunders story.

A refined version of deep-brain stimulation technology could do wonders for those who struggle with psychiatric disorders, but could it eventually be used to enhance the minds of otherwise healthy people? Are brains connected to a remote-control device that has a significant effect on mood and well-being susceptible to hacking?

For Megan, the technology doesn’t lead to an existential crisis where the technology alters her perception of herself, but her now-husband wondered if a Megan without obsessive-compulsive disorder would be capable of loving him. Where does Megan end and machine begin?

The episode doesn’t answer the questions it raises — it can’t — but it opens a window into a future where such questions could have significant effects on society.

Listen here.

New episodes of Invisibilia appear on Fridays.

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