“Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind.” (Milton, Comus)
“Everyone has the right to freedom to hold opinions without interference.” (United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
“Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.” (Bertrand Russell)
Whether we are members of the antipsychiatry movement, the mad movement, the critical psychiatry movement, or the neurodiversity movement, despite very real differences between us, we are united by a common cause—to wit, reining in the psy disciplines, for the most part, in particular psychiatry. Various concepts assist us in this vital endeavour. Examples of concepts that have been and are likely to continue to be indispensable in this regard are: validity, construct validity, basic human rights, dignity, and free and informed consent. A concept that falls squarely under the larger umbrella of human rights that I am suggesting that we would do well to draw on more is cognitive liberty. It is this concept that I am exploring in this article.
Traces of the principle now called cognitive liberty can be found in legal literature dating back as far as Roman times. An early formulation is evident in the maxim of Roman law “cogitationis poenam nemo patitur” (which means ‘no one can be punished for his thought alone’—for a good discussion of the history of the concept, see “Cognitive Liberty or the International Human Right to Freedom of Thought”). This principle in various forms has continued to be drawn on throughout the ages, with freedom of thought becoming a hallmark of the Enlightenment.
Underlying the general principle is a belief that on a profound existential level, the self-direction coming from our mind, our awareness, our consciousness is precisely what makes us human. Correspondingly, whether it arises from a dictatorial regime intent on punishing people for thoughts considered treasonous or it originates with a so-called “helping professional” out to alter our consciousness purportedly for our own good, interference with our right to our own awareness constitutes nothing less than a violation of our humanity.
Albeit intimately related to this age-old discourse on liberty and on the freedom of the mind, the term “cognitive liberty” itself is comparatively new. It got introduced and became popular recently with the spread of neuroscience and neurotechnology. Coined by neuroethicist Dr. Wrye Sententia and legal theorist and lawyer Richard Glen Boire, the term’s development and meteoric rise in popularity can be traced to the enormous threat that people see as posed by this new technology—the threat to the very integrity of the mind.
Like freedom of thought formulations before it, cognitive liberty refers to liberty in the area of mind or consciousness. At the same time, it reaches somewhat beyond earlier formulations. More particularly, the concept of cognitive liberty is predicated on the idea that there are three basic cognitive rights that we all have simply by virtue of being part of the human community, to wit:
1) People have the right to think both what they think and how they think. That is, people have a fundamental right to cognitive self-determination.
2) People have a right for their thoughts to be private.
3) People have the right to alter their own consciousness (for a video that highlights these three dimensions, see The Audiopedia’s “What is Cognitive Liberty?”)
It is this concept thusly articulated that I am looking for our community to upfront more. Why?
Quite simply because linking our respective movements to this concept brings with it a number of distinct advantages. On one level, it is valuable—one might even say necessary—precisely because it goes to the core of what we are as human beings. Correspondingly, it unmasks psychiatry for the profound human rights violator that it is. More fundamentally still, it reveals such transgression as the essence of what psychiatry is actually all about.
On a related level, it is valuable because it links us to a long-standing tradition and widely accepted legal and philosophic value—the value of liberty, with particular emphasis on the freedom of the mind—as found in Roman law; as articulated, for example, by John Stuart Mills in his seminal treatise On Liberty. As such, it could be of significant help in bringing the general public on side. Given the enormous prejudices against people seen as mad, the public often balks when it comes to the rights of psychiatrized people—the right, for example, to refuse treatment. More securely anchoring these rights to broader human rights with a long-standing history arguably could go a long way to navigating around this prejudice. To be clear, of course, we have already linked it in other ways to broader human rights and indeed have been doing so for centuries, and we need to continue doing so. Moreover, we have been making noteworthy strides with initiatives like the CRPD as currently formulated (see “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” on the United Nations website). Linking it additionally and explicitly to this right, nonetheless, has the added advantage that comes from this being a right that the public is currently highly concerned about.
The concept is valuable, additionally, because of how enormously broad and far-reaching it is. It of course rules out all compulsory psychiatric treatment aimed at changing people’s thoughts or “correcting their minds”—and this is critical. It rules out hassling people in any way for taking the recreational drugs that they choose to take, including those that the law currently criminalizes. However, it also rules out surveillance—and as we know, psychiatry is an extensive and all-encompassing system of surveillance. Additionally, if such a principle were accepted, it could allow us to significantly curb the pressure that is routinely brought to bear on people “technically free” to make their own decisions. How so? Because all such pressure is transparently incompatible with cognitive self-determination.
To give you a quick taste of what a principle like this could hypothetically be used to protect people from:
If cognitive liberty were truly enshrined as an inviolable human right:
- Would anyone be able to be drugged or electroshocked against their will? No.
- Would it be acceptable to try to alter someone’s brain by subjecting them to electrical stimulation under the pretext that they are children who do not know what is best for them and that this would improve their thought processes? Or indeed, under any other pretext? Not for a second!
- Could people be locked up for what they think or seem to be thinking? No.
- Could concepts like “grandiose thinking” and “paranoid thoughts” be used to typify people and/or to fashion approaches to them? No.
- Would any current psychiatric diagnoses be acceptable? Nary a one of them.
- Could extensive notes be taken on people, despite their wish for privacy? No way! (In other words, gone would be all that spying on survivors and the compilation of case records that can be trotted out and used against them in an instant.)
- Could anyone be thrown in jail or in a psychiatric institution or have “treatment” forced upon them for using recreational drugs like heroin? No.
- Could threats—covert or otherwise—or dismal predictions of what will happen to people if they do not agree to what is being recommended to them be used to pressure said people to agree to mind-altering treatments? Of course not!
In a nutshell, psychiatry as we know it today quite simply could not exist.
Nor is this the totality of the benefits that could be gleaned by rallying behind this concept. By way of example, it could also be of use to us in fostering alliances between the antipsychiatry movement, the critical psychiatry movement, the mad movement, and the neurodiversity movement—for it provides us with a basis through which we can act together. If we were considering joining in a collective action, for instance, despite very real theoretic and practical differences, one way we might go about deciding whether or not to take the leap is by asking ourselves questions like: Is the action consistent with a commitment to cognitive liberty? And does it aim in the direction of maximizing cognitive liberty?
Now, to be clear, I am in no way suggesting that we should always and only be uniting across differences. As an antipsychiatry theorist and activist, for example, I place enormous importance on the claim that there is no biological basis whatsoever to any of the so-called “psychiatric disorders,” also on maintaining an uncompromising abolitionist stance. Correspondingly, I often wrestle and will continue to wrestle with theorists and activists whose positions are of a reformist nature. Nonetheless, I also want to be able to unite with them. And I see the principle of cognitive liberty facilitating this.
By the same token, the principle could unite people with different beliefs within the same sub-movement. To see how this could work, let us consider for a moment the neurodiversity movement:
On one level, drawing on the principle of cognitive liberty, people in the neurodiversity movement who believe that there is a genetic basis to “autism” could use the concept of cognitive liberty as a way to ally with antipsychiatry activists who might question this causal attribution, and vice versa. However, what is every bit as fundamental, it could also be used to bridge differences that are totally within the neurodiversity movement itself. What is significant in this regard is that not everyone in the neurodiversity movement believes that autism is caused by inherent neurological differences.
Take the cutting-edge neurodiversity theorist Nick Walker, for example; correspondingly, witness this interchange between Nick and me (from The Revolt Against Psychiatry):
NW: It is clear from neuroscience 101 that all of our thoughts manifest as neural pathways. If you are thinking differently…
BB: In the very process of doing this, you are altering your neurology?
NW: Exactly. It is not possible to think outside the norm without building neural pathways in your brain… And every mad brain is a neurodivergent brain, which is different from someone’s whose thoughts stay within cultural norms.
Here is a leading neurodiversity theorist who indeed very much believes that there are differences between the brains of neurodivergent people and those of neurotypical folk but who absolutely does not believe that anyone is caused to be “neurodivergent” by these differences, but instead believes the reverse—to wit, that the neurology of “neurodivergent” people’s brains differs from the brains of the “neurotypicals” for the simple reason that they think “mad thoughts.” Uniting behind the concept of cognitive liberty allows people in this movement to bridge this divide.
As you can see by now, there are manifold advantages that can be gained through leveraging the concept of cognitive liberty. Of course, it goes without saying that there will be opposition to its use from a number of quarters and that these would have to be addressed. To provide a brief list of myths and facts that may be of help to people who take it upon themselves to lobby for the acceptance of this principle:
Myth: People’s thinking may sometimes need to be controlled, for their thoughts can be dangerous.
Fact: While thinking may well be dangerous, indeed, downright subversive, part of being a human being is precisely accepting such danger. It is one thing to put a stop to dangerous acts; it is quite another to interfere with people’s thoughts.
Myth: People will have greater cognitive liberty if we first correct the distortions in their thinking.
Fact: Besides the fact that the very framing of people’s thoughts as distortions is inherently problematic, people do not end up with more liberty from the removal of liberty. They invariably end up with less. Herein lies one of great lies and one of the profound tragedies of psychiatry.
Myth: Some ways of thinking are simply superior to others.
Fact: Even were this true, it does not justify intrusion. Moreover, it is not true. In the long run, we benefit from a broad range of ways of processing—reason, emotion, intuition, imaginative leaps, and no, there is no proof whatsoever that one way is demonstrably better than the rest.
Myth: Predicating anything on freedom of thought is a non-starter, for it assumes free will and people do not have free will. There are causal explanations behind every thought that we think.
Fact: There are clearly impulses and instincts that exert influences on our thinking as well as on our acts. However, that is different than saying that there is no free will. While people in the neurosciences commonly deny free will, none of their arguments show the absence of free will. Rather what they reveal instead is a tendency to gross reductionism on the part of the people who advance such arguments. It is high time that we stop reducing and we started taking in people in all their fullness.
Now obviously, it would be a real asset in any attempt to gain acceptance for the principle of cognitive diversity if any of the major theorists in any of the movements named in this article had already taken up the concept. Have any actually done so? Indeed yes. Nick Walker from the neurodiversity movement solidly embraces the concept. And well over a year ago Nick and I, at the instigation of Emily Cutler, and indeed with input from Emily, did a podcast precisely on using the concept of cognitive liberty. Correspondingly, in my upcoming book Nick explicitly names it as a concept that the various movements might unite around.
In other words, not only is the time right for this concept, and not only has substantial historical, philosophical, and other groundwork been laid, but practical steps have already been taken. As I see it, the task confronting us now is to tease out in more intricate detail its precise relevance to the “mental health area” and to begin building a broad-based acceptance for it—among survivors, among theorists, among activists, among legislators, within the public at large.
In ending, let me pose a few questions to the reader: Do you believe in the inviolable right of individuals to think what they think? To think how they think? Is cognitive self-determination important to you? Do you view the privacy of thought as sacrosanct? Is cognitive liberty a term, a principle, a bottom-line that you can imagine yourself rallying around?
If your answer to these questions is yes, my invitation is: Do consider joining Nick, Emily, and others in the attempt to build a broad-based acceptance for the principle. While for sure this principle is not everything, if our theorists, our activists, and our lobbyists truly get behind it, it just might be able to do the heavy lifting that a number of us are sensing that it can do.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.