Only recently have I come to appreciate ‘preventive care’ in daily life: Put air in your tires so they don’t wear down; lock your windows at night so your PlayStation doesn’t get stolen; brush your teeth everyday so you don’t get gingivitis. But, even though a lack of foresight can lead to chaos and, most frustratingly, drain the bank account, things nevertheless get a little hairy when every daily activity is preventive. We quickly find ourselves living of life of control-freakedness–of trying to finagle a life lived according to our expectations.

Last week’s episode of Science Friday mentioned a developing technology in the vein of preventive care, and I was reminded why I don’t usually listen to Science Friday. (The English major shows his true colors.) The theories that scientists tend to call “cool” or “exciting” or (God help us) “groundbreaking” are, to me, “frightening” and reason enough to consider absconding to the wilderness with back-to-earth wookies and a paper calendar.

That said, for the more open-minded, Science Friday can be a wonderful 90-minute segment that covers lots of “groundbreaking” material. One of last week’s more perplexing topics was about the development of a nanobot which allows for a more controlled release of medication into the bloodstream. One of the show’s guests, Sophie Bushwick, gave the lowdown:


This is pretty much science fiction. So when you put a drug into the bloodstream, you can’t really control its release. So researchers made these little nanobots out of a DNA shell, and they put the drugs in the shell. So they are not active when you put them into the body. But if you can open up that shell, which is done by exposing it to electromagnetic energy, then the drug is released.

And the way they control whether the energy goes on or off is through the brain. So a human wore an EEG cap that measured his brain activity, and they trained a computer algorithm to recognize when he was doing mathematical calculations in his head. And when he did those calculations, it turned on an electromagnetic coil around a cockroach.

The cockroach had been injected with these nanobots. So when the electromagnetic coil went on, the nanobots in the cockroach had this fluorescent molecule, so that they opened up. And the molecule became active in the cockroach. They could see that the experiment worked….

So let’s take, for example, someone who has schizophrenia. And when they’re going to have a violent episode, their brain goes into a certain state. You could train an EEG headset to recognize when they were about to have a violent episode, and that would activate in the electromagnetic coil, which would turn on the drugs in their bloodstream. But that would only happen if it was necessary. The rest of the times, the drugs wouldn’t be active, and so you wouldn’t have to worry about side effects.


My innate resistance to a technology like this is evidence of my own tendency toward control, my desire to cling to the world as I know it–my fear of something new and strange. Even so, I can’t refrain from wondering: Might a technology like this ultimately result in the manipulation (or stoppering) of human emotion? I know, I know…I’ve been watching too much Black Mirror. But it does warrant consideration.

This story struck me because I have a friend with schizophrenia, and if this technology were to allow her to wear an EEG cap, or a smaller version of an EEG cap, to control the release of a p.r.n. drug in her bloodstream, she could effectively refrain from experiencing acute psychotic episodes altogether. On the one hand, she would be relieved beyond words, as would her family, caretakers, and friends, to know that they were all living in a more controlled, positive environment. On the other hand, this might be a slight to her dignity. At what point does technology like this begin to shave off the dignity of feeling? Of experiencing the lows? We all have the need for our own peculiar messes to be accepted, not ignored.

9eb10fb81638390e2e05ac4b99fdd41cChurches tend to reach for this kind of technology, too. They find nanobots in the message that, even on the smallest of scales, Jesus invests in us the power to control ourselves and our environments. Once we are saved, or healed, we will be ready to ‘build the Kingdom’; we will always want to say nice things and read our Bibles and not cuss at the other cars swerving their way through DC traffic. If this is our message, our realest belief is that God is our own useful technology, a mind-controlled nanobot. We expect him to eradicate our darkest moments.

Like the mind-controlled nanobot, though, this line of thinking may help us ignore our darkest moments, but it will not cure the ultimate malady; it is only an environment controller. As when someone says, “He’s in a better place”–though it may be true, few people actually feel that they are better off without the deceased–we say these things for fear of not having anything else to say. It’s the uncontrollable, empty silence of mourning that scares us the most. In a similar way, psychotic episodes and emotional breakdowns represent what cannot be controlled.

In some ways, a technology like this may be a relief, a reprieve, but it is not the ultimate cure. Mind-controlled nanobots may look like a cure, because no one wants to have a psychotic episode. Not even Jesus wanted to go to the cross–but “I must be on my way” (Lk 13). In the same way that Ray Bradbury feared where the TV would take us as a society (to Netflix!), I, perhaps unreasonably, wonder whether a technology like this is really intended to simply medicate schizophrenia–or if there’s a hope beyond this, that we may one day have the power to curb any emotional breakdown. Anxiety? Depression? From these situations, we want to be free–but there is no preventive care that can replace the experience of being as low as you can possibly be and hearing someone say, even so, you are loved.