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Neurotechnology today: What’s real, what’s coming
A balanced discussion of the realities, the mythologies, and the concerns surrounding cutting-edge brain research.
- A new film, I AM HUMAN, takes a comprehensive look at the realities of neurotechnology today.
- The film follows three patients for whom experimental treatment may be the best option.
- Experts weigh in on the difficulties and the promise of neurotech.
We hear a lot these days about a coming convergence between man and machine. Nowhere are more promises being made than in the area of the brain. From Elon Musk's brain interface to the promise of enhanced minds to home-brewed brain "stimulators," neurotechnology seems poised to carry us across a threshold into a new and glorious world. Or a new and terrifying one. There's robust debate over the potential impact, dangers, and value of such disruptive technology, as there should be. The problem is that we're not so good at thoughtful, reasonable debate.
We don't often write on Big Think about individual movies, but there's a new one, I AM HUMAN, directed and produced by Taryn Southern and Elena Gaby. It provides an unusually intelligent, wide-ranging, and balanced overview of where the research stands, and it's a compelling and thought-provoking experience. This being an area of such keen interest to Big Think readers, we recommend being on the lookout for this film.
Bill, Anne, and Stephen
One of the great hopes for brain research, of course, is that we'll discover the mechanisms behind brain disorders and learn how they can be cured. The World Health Organization has estimated that about 1 in 6 people have a brain disorder of some sort — that's a billion-plus people. As our visionaries fuel our imaginations regarding the eventual possibilities, it's easy to forget there are people here and now for whom the restorative potential of brain technology is no sci-fi daydream — it's a source of hope that their health can be restored. As doctors and technicians embark on this journey, they're accompanied by people you'd never imagine meeting at the cutting edge. People for whom such wildly experimental therapies are their best, and maybe only, hope.
I AM HUMAN introduces us to three such people. It's in following them through their procedures that we see the latest technologies being explored. Our emotional investment in this brave trio viscerally reminds us of the stakes involved.
- Bill recalls, "I was riding a bicycle in a charity event. It was raining really badly and I was following a mail truck. And then all of a sudden, it stopped and I didn't." A tetraplegic, Bill has no feeling below his mid-chest and longs to be able to one day regain enough movement simply to feed himself without assistance.
- Anne has Parkinson's disease. "I'm not really sure what's happening in my brain. Anxiety. Insomnia. Paralysis," says Anne. In addition to her fear of becoming nothing but a burden to her family as her symptoms worsen, "One of the Parkinson's symptoms I was always afraid of was that you couldn't smile and when you smiled you had a stony expression," she says. "It's hard to connect with people. I'm just way too exhausted and way too disorganized mentally to be with people the way I used to."
- Stephen was born with a condition he knew nothing about until his world world turned white: " When I lost my vision, the whole world collapsed." He lives alone, aided by his sister, with whom he's close, helping him get through life. "I just miss being independent."
The challenge of the human brain
Connective ports provide access to electrodes implanted in Bill's brain.
Image source: Luca del Puppo
None of the many experts interviewed in I AM HUMAN believe that a fundamental understanding is imminent of that three-pound object that has so much to do with who we are. Southern tells Big Think that, "The one consistent thing I've learned about a lot of neuroscientists is they have a very sober and humble view of just how complex and difficult of a problem they are tackling."
The current estimate is that the brain contains 100 billions neurons. As neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis notes, "100 billion was the old estimate of the number of galaxies in the universe." And even that number doesn't convey the true mathematical complexity involved. David Eagleman, also a neuroscientist, says that each of those neurons "is as complicated as the city of Los Angeles. It's connecting to 10,000 of its neighbors — so you have, you know, 500 trillion connections" to identify if you're trying to understand the human brain. Computer scientist Ramez Naam says it simply: "The brain is the most complicated object we've ever encountered in nature."
It's also a black box. Alongside each movement we make are lightning-fast instructions exchanged between these many neurons in some internal language we don't speak. Researchers use a range of technologies to eavesdrop on the brain's chatter — as Southern says, "You have methods like EEG, which uses electrical impulses to read brain activity; deep-brain electrodes also use electricity. But then you've got magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to read blood flow and sound waves through ultrasound. Of course, the non-invasive methods are more palatable. I'm sure that soon in the future, neuroscientists will see all of our methods now as crude."
Just as daunting, when neuroscientists attempt to manipulate individual neurons, the precision required is astounding, with each procedure a white-knuckle procedure. Surgeon Andres Lozano tells the filmmakers, "This is a game where you have to be within one millimeter. That one millimeter means a difference between success and failure."
Or stumbling into another area of the brain. One doctor told the filmmakers of a case in which an interface was implanted into the hypothalamus of a patient weighing 420 pounds "to see if they could regulate hunger or appetite." No dice. On the other hand, "To their surprise, the patient had vivid flashes of memory from 30 years earlier. When they left the stimulator on for a period of time, at a lower current, the patient had huge increases in memory capacity and being able to remember lists of words."
So for all of the fever-dreams of any-time-now cyber-brains, neurotech investor Bryan Johnson offers a reality check: "It's extraordinarily difficult to make breakthroughs in neuroscience. Scientists are tackling these really complicated problems, trying to do things that other people consider to be impossible. And it makes it both an extremely exciting time but also, it's daunting because there is no clear path to success."
Visions of the neurotech future
Anne must remain conscious during her deep brain surgery.
Image source: Joel Froome, ACS
The film presents' a range of advocates' visions of the possibilities should we finally be able to master the workings of the brain.
"We are about to enter into the most consequential revolution in the history of the human race," says Johnson, "where we can take control of our cognitive evolution. If we can make breakthroughs in the brain, we can overcome our biological limitations. We can reject the things that stop us from moving forward. My hope is that we get to a point in tech advancement that we're not limited by our technology, we're empowered by it, so it's a matter of choice of what we want to become."
While Southern says coverage of research is often focused on the enhancement of people to be "smarter, better, faster," she suggests that this may merely be a reflection of "our own sort-of Western bias to favor productivity and efficiency. But perhaps in other Eastern cultures they would orient the use of an interface to induce greater states of calm or create more empathy."
Johnson offers up how this could work: "Imagine I had a tool to interface with my brain where I could walk a mile in someone else's shoes. What if I could feel what it was like to be you? What if I could understand your contextual framework? What if I understand your memories and your emotions? Would that change the way we deal with each other? The way we cooperate, the way we make decisions?" Or, he adds, "Would that change our creative ability?"
Philosophical question arise
Retinal implants such as Stephen's are created in Second Sight's lab in Sylmar, CA.
Image source: Credit: Joel Froome, ACS
Of course, not everyone is embracing neurotechnology. According to a recent Pew study for example, people are more worried than enthusiastic when it comes to brain chip implants designed to boost a person's natural abilities — only 34% would be interested in getting one. (About half are okay with implants' use for therapeutic value.)
It's not just a fear of change — there are genuine philosophical and ethical issues. As Naam says in the film, "As we have this ability to change who we are, change our personality, what's at the core of us? What does that do to our sense of where we belong in the universe?"
Professor of philosophy and law Nita Farahany sums up the question this way: "If we start tinkering with the brain, if we start changing it….What does that mean? Are we about to fundamentally change what it means to be human? And if so, are we okay with that?" Seeing that, "We're at the moment where there are a lot of very rapidly emerging technologies, and brain computer interfaces are starting to become part of mainstream society,"' she warns that we'd better start figuring out where we want all this research to go before it's too late.
Southern tells us, "My biggest concern around the ethics is the lack of basic knowledge that we have as a society about science and tech. Scientists are so great at science, but sometimes lack the time or ability to connect that information to a larger audience. I think information is power, and the first step is education."
As far as the ethics of experimenting on living patients goes, the decisions of Bill, Anne, and Stephen to participate reflect their lack of better options. "People are worried, you know, 'Will I be the same, coming out, as I was going in?'" says Lozano. "There's a tremendous amount of anxiety about whether they are going to change in their outlook, in their personality, in their motivation, in their drive. You know, this is brain surgery. It's invasive. It is a scary thought."
The doctors involved, says Southern, are "incredibly conscientious about the impact of their work on the world, and those that we worked with on the film have a real drive to help people and improve lives. I don't think many people would argue that restoring function to someone with a disease as a resort of a brain interface is a bad thing. The ethical questions come down the road from there, when adoption becomes more widespread and normalized and people start to seek 'cosmetic' applications of these currently medical devices."
In the end
Southern says she was drawn to this topic as a storyteller. "I see what they're doing, and I think it's just incredible." Her goal in making I AM HUMAN she says, is that, "It's their job to be understated, and my job to hopefully translate the awe and I wonder I feel about what they're doing with the world."
In their experiences creating this film, Southern and Gaby gained a uniquely comprehensive overview of where things stand. We asked Southern what she dreams of humanity gaining from neurotechnology. "I'm really intrigued by the ideas of expanding our sensory abilities and processing. We know that our brains receive data through our given senses — sight, tough, taste, sound, etc. But that data isn't necessarily reflective of reality, and other animals can receive data into their brains differently. For instance, bats have a sense called echolocation that allows them to use sound waves and echoes to determine where they are in space. What if we had that ability? Or what if we could sense electromagnetic waves or ultraviolet light? I'd be pretty excited to see some of these things come to fruition."
Such capabilities could allow us to understand the true nature of physical reality in ways we currently lack the tools to even image. On a more day-to-day level, she adds, "I'd also love to just be able to turn off that pesky and unnecessary fight-or-flight survival response to mundane stress."
The experience has left Southern feeling "Optimistic. Every new technology has been fraught with incredible advantages and drawbacks. I see this being no different. We're just so often uncomfortable with changing the status quo — but ultimately we collectively adopt what is valuable to us. Pessimism around technology," she says, may just reflect issues with our values and systems. "When the foundation of those are broken, it's hard to imagine not building things on top that wreak some degree of havoc. Ultimately, however, having our ability to see and understand the mechanics of our own minds — the creation force of our reality — offers us unparalleled potential beyond our wildest imaginations."
I AM HUMAN will be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in early May.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
From "mutilated males" to "wandering wombs," dodgy science affects how we view the female body still today.
- The history of medicine and biology often has been embarrassingly wrong when it comes to female anatomy and was surprisingly resistant to progress.
- Aristotle and the ancient Greeks are much to blame for the mistaken notion of women as cold, passive, and little more than a "mutilated man."
- Thanks to this dubious science, and the likes of Sigmund Freud, we live today with a legacy that judges women according to antiquated biology and psychology.
The story of medicine has not been particularly kind to women. Not only was little anatomical or scientific research done on women or on women-specific issues, doctors often treated them differently.
Even today, women are up to ten times more likely to have their symptoms explained away as being psychological or psychosomatic than men. Worryingly, women are 50 percent more likely to be misdiagnosed after a heart attack, and drugs designed for "everyone" are actually much less effective (for pain) or too effective (for sleeping) in women.
Are these differences real or imagined? And what can the history of female medicine teach us about where we are today?
A mutilated male
Aristotle is rightly considered one of the greatest minds of all time and is recognized as the founding father of many disciplines, including biology. He was one of the most rigorous and comprehensive scientists and field researchers the world had known. He categorized a large number of species based on a wide range of traits, such as movement, longevity, and sensory capacity. His views on women, then, stemmed from what he thought of as good, proper study. The problem is that he got pretty much all of it wrong.
According to Aristotle, during pregnancy, it was the man who, alone, contributed the all-important "form" of a fetus (that is, its defining nature and personality), whereas the woman provided only the matter (that is, the environment and sustenance to grow the fetus, which was provided by the menstrual blood).
From this, Aristotle extrapolated all sorts of dubious conclusions. He ventured that the man was superior, active, and dominant, and the woman inferior, passive, and submissive. As such, the woman's role was to nurture children, run a household, and be silent and obedient — political and cultural manifestations of dodgy biology. If women did not provide a child's form and nature, how important could they really be?
Given this passivity, Aristotle argued that the woman must be associated with other passive things, like being cold and slow. The man, being dynamic and energetic, must be hot and fast. From this, Aristotle concluded that any defects or problems in childbirth can only be due to the sluggishness of the female womb. Even the positive biological aspects of being female, such as greater longevity, were put down to this cold rigidity — a lack of metabolism and spirit. Most notorious of all, since Aristotle believed that female children were themselves the result of an incomplete and underdeveloped gestation, women were simply "mutilated males" whose mothers' cold wombs had overpowered the warm, vital, male sperm.
Aristotle can still be counted as a great mind, but when it came to women, his ideas have not aged well in just how far they negatively influenced what came after. Given that his works were seen as the authority well into the 16th century, he left quite the pernicious legacy.
A wandering womb
But, how much can we really blame Aristotle? Without the aid of modern scientific equipment, physicians and biologists were left to guess about female anatomy. Unfortunately, the damage was done, and Aristotle's ideas of a troublesome uterus became so mainstream that they led to one of the more bizarre ideas in medical history: the wandering womb.
The "wandering womb" is the idea that the womb is actually some kind of roaming parasite in the body, possibly even a separate organism. According to this theory, after a woman menstruates, her womb becomes hot and dry and so becomes extra mobile. It is transformed into a voracious hunter. The womb will dart from organ to organ, seeking to steal its moisture and other vital fluids. This parasitic behavior caused all sorts of (female only) illnesses.
If a woman had asthma, the womb was leeching the lungs. Stomach aches, it was in the gut. And if it attacked the heart (which the ancients thought was the source of our thoughts), then it would cause all manner of mental health issues. In fact, the Greek word for womb is "hystera," and so when we call someone (often a woman) hysterical, we are saying that their womb is causing mischief.
The "solutions" or "remedies" for a wandering womb were as strange as the theory. Since the womb was supposed to be attracted to sweet smells, placing flowers or perfumes around the vagina would "lure" it down. On the flip side, if you smoked noxious substances or ate disgusting foods, it would "repel" the womb away. By using all manner of smells, you could make the womb move wherever you wanted.
The oddest "remedy" — and most male-centric of all — is that, since the wandering womb was said to be caused by heat and dryness, a good solution would be male semen, which was thought of as cooling and wet. And so, the ancient and highly inaccurate myth was born that sex could cure a woman of her "hysteria."
A lingering problem
We live today with the legacy of this kind of thinking. Freud was much taken with the idea of "hysteria," and although he did accept that men could be subject to it as well, he believed it was overwhelmingly a female problem caused by female biology. The woman, for Freud, is mostly defined by her "sexual function." What Freud calls "normal femininity" (the preferred and best outcome) is defined by passivity. A woman's ideal development is one which moves from being active and "phallic" to passive and vaginal.
Nowadays, Freud and Aristotle's legacy lies in just how easily women are defined by their sexuality. Given that men and women, both, are equally dependent on their biology, it is curious how much more often women are reduced to theirs. The idea that women are more emotional or slaves to their hormones than men is still a depressingly familiar trope. It is an idea that goes back to the Greeks.
If we think biology is important to who we are (as it most certainly is), we ought to make sure that the biology is as good and accurate as it can be.
People tend to reflexively assume that fun events – like vacations – will go by really quickly.
For many people, summer vacation can't come soon enough – especially for the half of Americans who canceled their summer plans last year due to the pandemic.
But when a vacation approaches, do you ever get the feeling that it's almost over before it starts?
If so, you're not alone.
In some recent studies Gabriela Tonietto, Sam Maglio, Eric VanEpps and I conducted, we found that about half of the people we surveyed indicated that their upcoming weekend trip felt like it would end as soon as it started.
This feeling can have a ripple effect. It can change the way trips are planned – you might, for example, be less likely to schedule extra activities. At the same time, you might be more likely to splurge on an expensive dinner because you want to make the best of the little time you think you have.
Where does this tendency come from? And can it be avoided?
Not all events are created equal
When people look forward to something, they usually want it to happen as soon as possible and last as long as possible.
We first explored the effect of this attitude in the context of Thanksgiving.
We chose Thanksgiving because almost everyone in the U.S. celebrates it, but not everyone looks forward to it. Some people love the annual family get-together. Others – whether it's the stress of cooking, the tedium of cleaning or the anxiety of dealing with family drama – dread it.
So on the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2019, we surveyed 510 people online and asked them to tell us whether they were looking forward to the holiday. Then we asked them how far away it seemed, and how long they felt it would last. We had them move a 100-point slider – 0 meaning very short and 100 meaning very long – to a location that reflected their feelings.
As we suspected, the more participants looked forward to their Thanksgiving festivities, the farther away it seemed and shorter it felt. Ironically, longing for something seems to shrink its duration in the mind's eye.
Winding the mind's clock
Most people believe the idiom “time flies when you're having fun," and research has, indeed, shown that when time seems to pass by quickly, people assume the task must have been engaging and enjoyable.
We reasoned that people might be over-applying their assumption about the relationship between time and fun when judging the duration of events yet to happen.
As a result, people tend to reflexively assume that fun events – like vacations – will go by really quickly. Meanwhile, pining for something can make the time leading up to the event seem to drag. The combination of its beginning pushed farther away in their minds – with its end pulled closer – resulted in our participants' anticipating that something they looked forward would feel as if it had almost no duration at all.
In another study, we asked participants to imagine going on a weekend trip that they either expected to be fun or terrible. We then asked them how far away the start and end of this trip felt like using a similar 0 to 100 scale. 46% of participants evaluated the positive weekend as feeling like it had no duration at all: They marked the beginning and the end of the vacation virtually at the same location when using the slider scale.
Thinking in hours and days
Our goal was to show how these two judgments of an event – the fact that it simultaneously seems farther away and is assumed to last for less time – can nearly eliminate the event's duration in the mind's eye.
We reasoned that if we didn't explicitly highlight these two separate pieces – and instead directly asked them about the duration of the event – a smaller portion of people would indicate virtually no duration for something they looked forward to.
We tested this theory in another study, in which we told participants that they would watch two five-minute-long videos back-to-back. We described the second video as either humorous or boring, and then asked them how long they thought each video would feel like it lasted.
We found that the participants predicted that the funny video would still feel shorter and was farther away than the boring one. But we also found that participants believed it would last a bit longer than the responses we received in the earlier studies.
This finding gives us a way to overcome this biased perception: focus on the actual duration. Because in this study, participants directly reported how long the funny video would last – and not the perceived distance of its beginning and its end – they were far less likely to assume it would be over just as it started.
While it sounds trivial and obvious, we often rely on our subjective feelings – not objective measures of time – when deciding how long a period of time will feel and how to best use it.
So when looking forward to much-anticipated events like vacations, it's important to remind yourself just how many days it will last.
You'll get more out of the experience – and, hopefully, put yourself in a better position to take advantage of the time you do have.