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The Cost of Not Suffering

A few weeks ago, a myriad of British papers reported on the story of a woman with severe depression, who has finally been treated successfully. Originally, although pleasing to hear, I thought such a headline seemed quite ordinary and dull for the content of national broadsheets. Yet, my opinion quickly altered as this “treatment” was revealed to be an experimental brain implant, devised in the US, and touted as a form of intervention which may bring hope to those who have mental conditions perennially unabated by typically-prescribed drugs.

The implant, a small chip, recognises patterns of depressive emotion in the brain and interrupts them via electric pulses – pulses which can emanate hundreds of times a day, if needs be. Upon learning this, my initial hope and intrigue transformed – as is now habitual – into the despair and general malaise to which I am now much more accustomed. My first concern was that no one seemed to be questioning this, or worrying about it. And why not? 20 years ago, this was the stuff of science fiction at its most devious; under the guise of paradise, unknowing victims are duped into the mind-control schemes of the evil villain, whoever it may be. As children, for generations, we read about such things, and saw such things on the telly. Yet now, as the thing in and of itself emerges from the irreal land of make-believe, no one bats an eyelid.

Why no one bats an eyelid is evident: the muddled sense of ego-soothing “sympathy” that may now define an epoch in a state of total psychosis. In the 21st century, where there are no brakes, no considerations, no hesitancies, for the awful moral precedents we may be setting; where science exists only to solve problems, no matter the (exorbitant) moral cost, it appears that everything is permissible. Permissible so long as it allows us to claim we are making people feel better. The word feel being critical: we are not making people, nor their lives, better, only how they feel. Yet what does it say of our valuation of human life, if we are to accept that to enjoy our days, some require an artificial implant that dictates emotion? Could we not instead fund mental health services, address deep-rooted societal issues, and combat the alienation which dints so deeply the mental wellbeing of many? I struggle to believe that our best hope is found in a contraption that would not be amiss in Brave New World.

The main response to my frustrations here is readily predictable. The usual groan and rebuttal that it’s “none of my business”, which is becoming the go-to-response for any sort of criticism people find to be insufficiently light and fluffy. But in this case, it really is my business, as it is all of yours. Mental illness is widespread, and is spreading only wider. Between April 2019 and April 2021, there was a 75% rise in referrals for first suspected episode of psychosis, according to the Guardian. This says nothing for depression nor anxiety. Within these growing numbers, we will find many a person suffering from severe mental illness immune to the innumerable brain-chemical regulation pills that innumerable people are already prescribed. If in ten or twenty years’ time, even a small percentage of the population has a chip hidden within their head, regulating their interactions and emotions, then think of the ramifications that has for society – you may indeed be the only person in the room able to feel negative emotion, and totally unaware of the fact. See therein the absurdity of the natural becoming the exceptional.

However, that is the modern direction of travel. In Aldous Huxley’s aforementioned Brave New World, most original readers may certainly have identified with the great character of the Savage; the Savage who declared, against the customs of his time, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” I have a profound fear that many current readers of Brave New World would have an intense disdain for the Savage; behold a man who desired the freedom to suffer what an oddity! The more one looks, the more one sees a world asking for just the opposite of what he did, unaware that to have no freedom to suffer, means to have no freedom at all.

Illustration: Vera Rapp

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