On July 17, 2019, Elon Musk unveiled preliminary research conducted by Neuralink, his company focused on developing a brain-computer interface (BCI). But imagine, in some alternate universe, this talk occurring in 1895; and imagine it just so happens that young Sigmund Freud is in the audience. Let’s say he has just enjoyed a large hit of cocaine, as he was often inclined to do. His thoughts are buzzing. He thinks back to his workday, mostly spent conducting dream analysis, struggling to tap into his patients’ deepest, darkest motivations. And now he hears Elon Musk speaking from the brightly-lit stage:
“Our goal is to record from and stimulate spikes in neurons…and do so in a way that is orders of magnitude more than anything that has been done to date.”
“My God!” thinks Freud, “this is a revolution! Forget dream analysis, I can now access the unconscious mind directly… I can connect unconscious processes to a computer…” It’s 1895, but let’s assume computers exist. Freud is just beginning to develop his theories about the unconscious mind but, lucky for him, he happens to be alive during the age of computers.
Sniffing furiously, his mind races through the possibilities. “I can capture internet-searches mid-dream. I can document slips-of-the-tongue occurring not through speech, but through internet activity. Maybe I can capture patients’ half-formed, unspoken thoughts? And I’ll have their thoughts unfiltered, straight from the unconscious!”
This is Freud hopped up on coke, of course, so we should take his musings with extreme reservation. He’s also thinking about an army of robots controlled by his patents’ IDs. As the general of the army, “I’ll take over the world!” he thinks. Wild as his thoughts are, however, it’s impossible to not be carried along by his excitement for this new technology.
On stage, Musk and his team are reassuring the audience about the practical implications of his brain-computer interface. With this technology, we’ll be able to help patients with Parkinson’s. Quadriplegics. The elderly… Eventually, yes, we’ll be able to have immediate access to the knowledge of the internet through the cloud — zero latency! What else? Well, of course, there are the powers of telepathy… As well as the potential to merge with AI…
“That’s fine, that’s great,” thinks Freud in the back row, “but why isn’t Elon discussing the psychological implications?”
That’s the question I’ve wondered again and again while casually researching BCI technology. Why is no one paying proper attention to the psychological implications of connecting our brains to computers? Specifically, what about the unconscious?
Yes — the unconscious. This is an entire area of psychology that remains controversial. Modern approaches to the unconscious tend to basically redefine it in terms of automatic behavior, behavior which is relatively easy to access and change (e.g. through mindfulness meditation, which “can help clients tune into thoughts they previously weren’t noticing”). But the classic, Freudian view of the unconscious is still very much part of the discussion. It is still the dominant way in which we, as a culture, think about the unconscious. It’s still part of pop psychology, still all over the world of woo, and still even subject to fancy academic research.
The persisting difficulty with the Freudian perspective all goes back to the basic dilemma that Freud himself struggled with: the question of how to meaningfully “tapping into” the unconscious. Freud didn’t by any means discover the unconscious. Hindu texts mentioned unconscious elements of the mind as far back as 2500 BC. Shakespeare even explored unconscious motivations, as did philosophers like Hegel, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. The term “unconscious” wasn’t even coined by Freud, but by 18th-century philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Freud’s contribution basically comes down to his invention of processes to supposedly tap into the unconscious mind.
His flagship insight was to use dream analysis to dive deep into a person’s motivations. Through documenting and interpreting a person’s dreams, he reasoned, he could analyze all those inner workings of the mental processes that never quite rise to the level of conscious awareness. When a person dreams, the theory goes, their ego defenses are disempowered, enabling repressed content to bubble up. This is why Freud considered dreams to be “the royal road to the unconscious.”
But how effective, really, is dream analysis? There are still plenty of psychoanalysts and depth psychologists practicing today. And we’re all amateur dream analyzers to one degree or another. But we’ve all got to admit that this dream analysis business isn’t exactly a hard science — not by a long stretch. In fact, according to Psychology Today, “there is no scientifically supported system of dream interpretation.”
So, the fields of psychology and psychiatry need a better tool for tapping into unconscious processes. Dream analysis isn’t cutting it. Could Neuralink be the answer?
“Yes!” thinks Freud, running out of the lecture hall at the end of Musk’s presentation. “This is it! This is the key to unlocking all the mysteries of the mind! Every last one of them!”
Freud is just getting carried away, of course. His enthusiasm is surely overblown. Even in the post-Neuralink-presentation world, people are still writing pessimistically about whether we’ll ever understand the human brain. But whether or not Neuralink will ever serve as a tool to meaningfully tap into the unconscious, this technology will very likely change the way we think about the unconscious. Even if we never fully understand the human brain, we are learning more and more about its functions and structures every day. Neuralink and other BCI technologies will only speed up this process.
In terms of how we think about the unconscious, I’d argue that Neuralink has already done the job. Just because of Neuralink’s existence, it’s a virtual guarantee that the way we think about the mind — and the ever-elusive unconscious mind — will change. Imagine the discussions happening in undergraduate psychology labs right this moment that were inspired by Neuralink. Those undergrads will be conducting graduate research in just a few years. Now imagine the discussions happening in writers’ rooms in LA. In the coming years, more and more of our books, movies, and TV shows will undoubtedly be peppered with plots and subplots about human brains connecting to and interacting with computers and AI.
By zeroing in on “the way we think about the unconscious,” I’m definitely bypassing hard discussions about whether or not Neuralink will actually change our understanding of the unconscious. That’s definitely an important discussion — one I’m happy to leave to an actual expert on BCI technology. But the way we think about concepts is equally important, as it’s foundational to how we view reality and interact with the world.
In his book “Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?” Jean Baudrillard observed: “By representing things to ourselves, by naming them and conceptualizing them, human beings call them into existence and at the same time hasten their doom, subtly detach them from their brute reality. For example, the class struggle exists from the moment Marx names it. But it no doubt exists in its greatest intensity only before being named.”
Similarly, the unconscious exists (in modern, western culture) from the moment Friedrich Schelling defines it. Since then, the idea of the unconscious has been iterated upon by armies of Freudian psychiatrists and entire nations of Philip K. Dick fans. At the present day, we’re left to navigate the enigmatic world where imaginary Sigmund Freud goes running excitedly out of a presentation by tech billionaire Elon Musk, who has just finished explaining how we can now connect our neurons to the internet.
“Back to the drawing board!” Freud yells as he disappears down a long, palm tree-lined boulevard somewhere in the unconscious mind of Silicon Valley.