Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Neuroethics Blog Series on Black Mirror: White Bear

By Kristie Garza

Image courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons.
Humans in the 21st century have an intimate relationship with technology. Much of our lives are spent being informed and entertained by screens. Technological advancements in science and medicine have helped and healed in ways we previously couldn’t dream of. But what unanticipated consequences of the rapid expansion into new technological territory? This question is continually being explored in the British sci-fi TV series Black Mirror, which provides a glimpse into the not-so-distant future and warns us to be mindful of how we treat our technology and how it can affect us in return. This piece is part of a series of posts that discuss ethical issues surrounding neuro-technologies featured in the show and will compare how similar technologies are impacting us in the real world. 

*SPOILER ALERT* - The following contains plot spoilers for the Netflix television series Black Mirror. 

Plot Summary

“White Bear” begins with Victoria, the episode’s main character, awakening in an unfamiliar room in front of a TV displaying an unfamiliar symbol. She has no memory of who she is or how she wound up in the room.

Afraid, Victoria begins to explore her outside surroundings, where she finds “onlookers,” individuals in a trance-like state, filming her with their phones. A masked man then appears and begins chasing Victoria. While fleeing, she meets Jem, a fellow individual not under the trance. Jem explains to Victoria that the onlookers were put in their trance due to the strange symbol on the screens and that the masked man is a “hunter,” part of an evil people not affected by the strange symbol.

Victoria and Jem escape the hunters and head toward a location called White Bear, where they plan to “kill the transmitter,” which would lead to the removal of the symbol entrancing the onlookers. Victoria is overcome by a flash of disturbing memories and a feeling of apprehension about White Bear. After hesitantly entering White Bear, Victoria helps Jem attempt to disarm the transmitter, but the duo is diverted by having to fight off two hunters. When Victoria shoots one of the hunter’s guns, confetti and sparks, rather than a bullet, fly out.

Image courtesy of pxhere
Cue lights. Pull back the curtains. Jem, Victoria, and the hunters appear on a stage. As the other characters on the stage take a bow, Jem leads Victoria to a chair and locks her wrists. The audience applauds, and we learn that everything that had happened up to this point was part of a show. An emcee then begins to narrate as Victoria’s mug shot and trial videos appear on the screen. The emcee explains that Victoria is a prisoner who was found guilty of murdering a young girl where she had recorded a video of her fiancé crucifying the young girl in the woods. After being caught, her fiancé committed suicide, but Victoria was “not allowed to get away with her crime as easily.”

Victoria is then forcefully removed from the stage, paraded through the streets, and returned to the same room she awoke in the beginning of the episode. The emcee places a headphone-shaped device on her head. As this device erases Victoria’s memories, the crew members set the stage for the show to begin again the next day.

As the episode’s credits air, images of the next day are shown from the perspective of the “White Bear Justice Center.” The White Bear staff prepare for visitors, who are told the following: 1) you can’t touch her, 2) you can’t talk to her, and 3) you can only video her. At this point, it becomes apparent that the whole episode is portraying an interactive experience, where visitors become part of a retributive justice system, playing the part of onlookers as they help stage the punishment for Victoria’s crimes.

The State of Current Technology

The main neuro-technology used in “White Bear” is the device attached to Victoria’s head at the end of the episode, which seems to erase all previous long- and short-term memories. While a device for deleting one’s memory, such as in “White Bear,” is not in the foreseeable future, there is active scientific research on the modifying specific memories.

Extinction Therapy
Unlike how memory-deleting devices are often depicted in the media, a memory is not encoded in the brain as a video-like entry that can easily be rewound and erased. Most research currently being done to extinguish memories is in the field of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the context of PTSD, an individual attaches a fearful valence to a specific, previously neutral stimulus, creating a new association or memory of this stimulus as fearful. Extinction therapy, also known as exposure therapy, works by repeatedly presenting this now feared stimulus until the individual no longer psychologically or physiologically reacts fearfully to the stimulus. For example, Emory University’s Barbara Rothbaum, PhD uses this therapy on her patients with PTSD to dissociate fear from stimuli (such as explosive noises) of traumatic memories.

While this research proves to be effective, it is important to note that extinction therapy does not erase a previous memory. Research done into extinction memory shows that the extinction process is actually creating a new memory pathway that competes with the previous memory, rather than deleting the previous memory (Falls, 1998; Quirk, 2002). As of now, it seems impossible to delete memories as was done at the White Bear facility.

Electroconvulsive Therapy
Electroconvulsive Therapy Model
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Usually, brain cells are uniquely balanced by excitation and inhibition to allow our brains to function properly. A seizure occurs when there is a disruption to this balance, and a group of neurons fire simultaneously (Fisher et al., 2005). Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is used while the patient is under anesthesia (not as was done at the White Bear facility to a screaming Victoria) to medically induce a seizure through electrical stimulation of the brain though the skull. ECT has been used as a last resort treatment plan for both depression and schizophrenia. Currently, it is not commonly used and remains controversial because one of its side effects is memory loss. Scientists, such as Dr. Marijn Kroes, have begun to try to utilize this side effect to target specific memories. In a 2014 Nature Neuroscience article, Dr. Kroes led a study where researchers successfully used ECT to decrease recovery of a previously stored memory in a group of human patients (Kroes et al., 2014). This study focused on a specific memory of a slideshow story with an auditory narrative that was induced and retrieved in a laboratory environment. Even with ECT showing evidence of potential memory alteration, this technology is far from producing a complete deletion of an entire person’s life memories, like what is seen in “White Bear.” Further, though the device may be effective in deleting a specific memory, scientists are unsure whether the emotions associated with a memory may persevere on some level (such as Victoria’s hunch to not enter White Bear).

Neuroethical Issues

While this episode of Black Mirror has a host of neuroethical issues, the main issue of concern is memory alteration. The way memory alteration is performed in this episode and its implications cross the boundary of cruel and unusual punishment.

Understanding the issues surrounding memory deletion requires an appreciation for the value of a memory. As humans, we are comprised of our memories, and it is argued that these memories make humans their authentic selves (Erler, 2011). For example, Francoise Baylis contends that “identities are created by relational beings mutually engaged in the never-ending project of constituting themselves in and through personal relationships and public interactions” (Baylis, 2011). If Victoria is unable to engage in these kinds of relationships to construct her identity, is memory erasure or alteration a reasonable punishment or does this enter into the domain of cruel and unusual punishment, as described by the US Constitution’s 8th amendment?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Chuck Coker
One must question the utility of the punishment used on Victoria if the device used on her head every night makes her unable to remember her crime. Is she still a criminal if she has no memory of her crime? Dr. Arthur Caplan would say yes. He has been quoted as saying, “we can change some memories without fundamentally changing who [they] are” (Delistraty, 2014). Alternatively, the American Bar Association recommends against execution for individuals who have a mental disorder or disability that impairs their capacity to “understand the nature and purpose of the punishment, or to appreciate the reason for its imposition.” In Victoria’s case, she has no memory of her crime and is repeatedly confused about her punishment. If this form of memory alteration induces Victoria into this confused mental state where she is not herself, it would be unethical to execute her for her crimes. The dilemma in White Bear, then, is that the device central for the punishment is causing the punishment to be unethical.

Or one might argue that perhaps the punishment is meant to offer justice for the victim or the victim’s family. Interestingly, retributive justice is actually found to not aid in forgiveness as much as a more prosocial form of justice (Karremans & Van Lange, 2005), making the viewer again question the utility of this method of justice at White Bear Justice Park. Further, one wonders about the morality of the public participants or onlookers and the actors of the White Bear team.

Conclusion

Current research is far from creating a memory device such as that used in “White Bear” as current neuroscience research is focused on using tools to alter specific memories. The psychological and ethical implications surrounding memory-alteration technology have the potential to completely alter an individual’s life. While this could be helpful for treating disorders such as PTSD, scholars argue that memories are essential to the development of a genuine individual (Erler, 2011).

References

Baylis, F. (2011). The self in situ: A relational account of personal identity. Relational theory and health law and policy, 109-131.

Delistraty, C. C. (2014, May 15). The Ethics of Erasing Bad Memories. Retrieved August 13, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/05/the-ethics-of-erasing-bad-memories/362110/

Erler, A. (2011). Does memory modification threaten our authenticity? Neuroethics, 4(3), 235-249.

Falls, W. A. (1998). Extinction: A review of theory and the evidence suggesting that memories are not erased with nonreinforcement. Learning and behavior therapy, 205-229.

Fisher, R. S., Boas, W. V. E., Blume, W., Elger, C., Genton, P., Lee, P., & Engel, J. (2005). Epileptic seizures and epilepsy: definitions proposed by the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) and the International Bureau for Epilepsy (IBE). Epilepsia, 46(4), 470-472.

Karremans, J. C., & Van Lange, P. A. (2005). Does activating justice help or hurt in promoting forgiveness? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(3), 290-297.
Kolber, A. J. (2006). Therapeutic forgetting: The legal and ethical implications of memory dampening. Vand. L. Rev., 59, 1559.

Kroes, M. C., Tendolkar, I., Van Wingen, G. A., Van Waarde, J. A., Strange, B. A., & Fernández, G. (2014). An electroconvulsive therapy procedure impairs reconsolidation of episodic memories in humans. Nature Neuroscience, 17(2), 204-206.

Quirk, G. J. (2002). Memory for extinction of conditioned fear is long-lasting and persists following spontaneous recovery. Learning & memory, 9(6), 402-407.

Scharfman, H. E. (2007). The neurobiology of epilepsy. Current neurology and neuroscience reports, 7(4), 348-354.

Tanaka, K. Z., Pevzner, A., Hamidi, A. B., Nakazawa, Y., Graham, J., & Wiltgen, B. J. (2014). Cortical representations are reinstated by the hippocampus during memory retrieval. Neuron, 84(2), 347-354.

Want to cite this post?

Garza, K. (2017). The Neuroethics Blog Series on Black Mirror: White Bear. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2017/09/the-neuroethics-blog-series-on-black.html

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