Mental illness is often stigmatized and feared due to it being poorly understood. The truth is that although we have made great progress in our recognition and treatment of many mental illnesses, there are still vast aspects of our brain function which are, for now, uncharted. In a place where knowledge is lacking we often substitute fear: fear of the unpredictable behavior of the individual, or perhaps fear of causing more harm by our actions. Fortunately, we also have healers like Dr. McCoy, who refused to let unsubstantiated assumptions dictate what would become of his newly arrived patient.
In ‘Dagger of the Mind’, the Enterprise crew is exchanging supplies with the colony on Tantalus V, which houses the criminally insane. An escaped ‘patient’, actually the former
assistant to the colony director, pleas asylum and warns the Enterprise crew of the dangers on the planet. Kirk and psychiatrist Dr. Noel beam down to investigate the colony. The facility appears bleakly sterile, and the director perhaps too ingratiating, but the most troubling feature of all was a machine called the neural neutralizer. Touted as an effective means to subdue agitated inmates, its semblance to a lobotomy seems unsettling, but in moderation its effects are not as permanent.
The story becomes particularly interesting when Captain Kirk ventures to test the machine himself, knowing he would be at the complete mercy of Dr. Noel. The ethics of the situation are further intensified by the fact that she obviously has her own (let’s call it) ‘self-interest’ at stake concerning the captain.
The fictional neural neutralizer is an impartial tool which can be used for a good purpose or a terrible one. Of course in the hands of this evil Star Trek villain, the device caused considerable harm, but would it have an application in the real world? For many psychiatric disorders, removing painful or inhibitory memories could be beneficial. Others might argue that these memories serve a purpose. What about the second aspect of the neural neutralizer…the ability to substitute a thought into a patient’s mind? If this technique were to be implemented, doctors would need to know what kind of thoughts would correctly rebuild a broken psyche. Much more research would need to be done before we can see the light.