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How Commercial "Brain Hacking" Devices Push the Limits of Medical Science

Computer-brain interface technology is progressing faster than medical research can reliably understand how it affects human health over the longterm. Still, the technology is really cool.

Nichol Bradford:  With transformative technology and at the transformative technology lab we’re tracking ten major areas of trans tech. And those ten areas include things like neurofeedback and biofeedback, neurostim and biostim. Those are the ones that I think people would think of the most. A good example of that would be the Muse headset by Interaxon that measures your EEG so it measures your brainwaves. Another thing that’s coming out is neurostim. A good example of that would be a company called Halo Neuroscience and so it’s a slight stimulation to the brain that in their trials with elite athletes they’re showing people having big surges in ability and so that’s kind of interesting. There’s another product called Think that sits on the forehead right here and it stimulates the peripheral nerves and could replace a cup of coffee. So it sort of stimulates you and wakes you up. So there’s a lot of focus on things that are taking feedback from the body and then stimulating the body.

And so it could be the body or the brain. One of the things that is coming is a lot of vagus nerve stimulation and on the medical side there’s research that’s recently come out where people are really taking that more seriously. In addition some of the things that I think are really cool is I’m really intrigued by emotion recognition software. Whether that’s through cameras that are watching facial expressions or through – or another example would be there’s a company called Beyond Verbal that just off of audio files can pick up human emotion. And you might think well sort of what’s the use of that. I know how I feel. But it’s actually if you think about it when everything in your house is smart you’re really going to want it to know if you’re upset or not. So I have a friend, an older friend that I bought an Amazon Echo for and she whispers around the Echo like it’s a real person. This is someone who’s in their seventies. And so for people who are growing up in smart houses which a lot of children today they won’t even know a time where there isn’t a certain level of intelligence that’s baked into their environment we’re going to want all these things to know how we feel. I think that emotion recognition is really interesting. It’s the thing that’s captured my imagination right now.

There’s a lot of interest right now in neurostim and a lot of that is based on a series of studies that were done by DARPA where they were using slight electrical stimulation and saw an increase in task acquisition for people in various roles in the military. The one that’s the most well-known is for the increase or the acceleration for sharpshooters from novice to expert with the application of a slight electrical stimulation while they were learning. There’s a lot of people who are really interested in that. There’s actually a really large do-it-yourself community around the world where people are doing citizen independent science really and do-it-yourself science and using various levels of electrical currency on their own brains and then sharing it in forums and communicating about it. People have been trying electrical stimulation with physical task acquisition. Also language task acquisition. I t’s one of those things that there’s products that are being based on it. There’s a whole category of things called transcranial direct stimulation. And so there’s a lot of products out there on that. Some of the brand names you might find would be Focus is one. Halo Neuroscience is another. The Think product is another. And so it’s starting to have commercial products for it.

There also was a as you can imagine there’s a lot of the medical community is a little concerned about it. It’s a good example of where people, individuals are really sort of pushing ahead of where the medical community is on, you know, what’s a good idea for what levels of stimulation you should have, how often and where. What part of the brain that you try to stimulate through the surface. And so it’s really, it’s an interesting space and people are pushing into it.

Human wellbeing exists between two planes of physical and mental health. While our physical health has gone digital — through apps and devices like Fitbit that quantify health metrics — human mental health has remained more analogue. To address our mental health, we still prefer the professional advice of doctors or ancient meditative practices like yoga.


The inability of technology to penetrate our state of consciousness, however, is quickly drawing to a close. Willow Group, a company that aims to leverage technology to bring people peace of mind, is led by CEO Nichol Bradford. A number of new medical devices are pushing into a space that some medical professionals, says Bradford, are uncomfortable with.

Nonetheless, a number of studies indicate that computer-brain interface devices may help people be more alert, learn faster, and understand their own emotions more accurately. Bradford refers to one instance in which the military's experimental research wing, DARPA, found that transcranial direct current stimulation improved the rate at which soldiers were able to learn certain skills.

And where the government is experimenting, a number of private companies have emerged around similar technologies. Muse, a "brain sensing" headband, asks users to wear it while meditating. The device gives realtime feedback about brain activity so people become more aware of their own awareness, and therefore more able to improve their ability to meditate.

Another device is the Halo headset from Halo Neuroscience, which claims to be the computer-brain interface of elite athletes. The company claims it can prime the brain for training through a series of electric pulses, resulting in more effective workouts. Among Halo's customers is the US Ski Team, according to the company's website.

Technology tends to progress faster than our ability to measure its results, at least according to medical science which relies on longterm studies. And the allure of technological progress often outpaces our caution regarding its health consequences — recall questions of whether cellphone signals might potentially harm the brain. Still, new technologies have transformed our lives dramatically in the last 50 years, and the rate of progress is speeding up rather than slowing down.

Nichol Bradford is the author of The Sisterhood.

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Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think.

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Why ‘Christian nationalists’ are less likely to wear masks and social distance

In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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