In this edition of the Virtual Futures Salon we were introduced to Neurostimulation and the different new ways in which we are seeking to develop and change our brains to perform longer, better and in more fun ways. It seems that after centuries of evolution we are resorting to the technological developments rather than letting evolution take its course.
Nick Davies professor of psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University started off by saying that even though we see the brain chasing we are unable to relate the changes in the brain and to measurable experiences. Brain stimulation puts energy across the brain via magnetic pulses, something that is already occurring in our brain naturally, however when directed and aimed the electrical energy can influence brain activity and create different behavior. He claimed that electric and magnetic devices that affect the brain and behavioral changes generally make us worse, although the possibility of increasing performance is what drives the further research. Still, it is important to point out that the exact way in which those devices affect our brain is unclear.
A historian at Kings College and part of the Human Brain Project, Christine Aicardi, talked about the discussions they lead. It seems that a clear pattern in history has been to relate the brain to the most advanced technological development of the time, just as now we compare the brain to computers; it used to be compared to the steam machine. Does this mean that the brain is the most complex organ and object we can imagine, and that maybe we won’t be able to ever fully understand it?
In contrast to all the ideas of increased performance thanks to technological intervention in the brain, Roi Cohen Kadosh, Oxford Cognitive Neuroscience Professor, reminded us that stimulation by itself wouldn’t make anybody smarter, he compared it to taking steroids but never actually setting foot in a gym. No permanent change could be inflicted onto the brain without a combination of cognitive training as well as brain wave stimulation. It is clear that a given capacity can be improved when focused on it but there is no way of improving every aspect of the brain and this might result in the deterioration of other cognitive parts of the brain. An important point maid is also that brains are all individual, the results and predictions can be made in individual or simian cases however it would be impossible to make a general assumption that would work in every case. Just as us, our brains are all unique.
Luciana Haill, artist in residence at the University of Sussex and lucid dreaming expert talked about the three aspects of lucid dreaming evaluation: disassociation, insight and elements of control. All these should be present in an analysis of dreams and brain activity during the REM stage.
Self-experimenting DIY brain-hacker Andrew Vladimirov also spoke about his start in drug experimentation as brain development and further development and experimentation in brain improvement, but he also made the important point that the debate should focus on the protocols and mechanisms of how to get there rather the actual results which are not yet fully accurate. The two main issues, as he points out, are targeting specific area in depth and targeting biochemical mechanisms.
The debate goes back to point out that self-experimentation should feed into clinical trials in order for the results to be analyzed academically and made safe for further and broader analysis. However it seems that the funding is non-existent unless the experiment is targeted at a specific disease rather than the analysis of brain performance. It is also pointed out that the experiments are extremely risky, and just as we can’t apply specific ideas to all brains and all brain activity. It is not yet possible to understand the consequences therefore subjecting large groups of people to experimentation might be dangerous.
Acari informed that the Human Brain Project is looking at improving current technologies for academic development and understanding rather than commercial use.
In terms of medical regulation, Roi Coehn Kadosh points out that it is important to understand each individual case in the experiment in order to asses the individual responses and consequences.
The debate finished with a short story by near-future fiction author Stephen Oram titled “Everyday Stims (stimulations)” that imagines a world where work performance improvement is regulated and administered by employers themselves and draws an image of how our work could not only control our whole lives but our brains as well.
The recent progress of AI has raised the bar for robots, is it time for the meds to do it for us?