YOUR MORPHABLE BODY.
The proliferation of networked embedded computers could bring about alterations to the body. Although it feels like we have a clear sense of where the body ends and the rest of the world begins, experiments have shown our body maps incorporate things that are part of the environment. For instance, if you extend your hand until it is within reach of an object, this will activate regions of the parietal cortex. Now, if you hold something that will extend your reach (a stick, perhaps) the same regions will show more activity when the end of the stick (rather than your hand) comes within touching distance. In effect, the stick has become incorporated into your body map and, as far as your brain is concerned, it is as much a part of you as your leg is.
Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier explored the mind’s ability to redefine the boundaries between the body and the external world. He found that, so long as the brain can easily control it, virtual bodies can morph into any shape, with any number of limbs. “I played around with elongated limb segments and strange limb placements”, Lanier wrote, also noting that if you could wiggle your toes and observe some corresponding change to clouds in the sky, “the clouds would start to feel like a part of your body”.
Of course, no such connection between toes and clouds exists, but we could one day exert control over external objects using nothing but thought alone. This would come about if the trend towards more personalized computers advances to a point where they interface directly with the brain. Cyborg implants, in other words. Such devices can either be non-invasive, in which case they sit outside the skull and attempt to pick up signals from the brain; they can be semi-invasive, placed beneath the skull and sitting on the surface of the cortex; or they can be invasive, in which case they penetrate into the brain itself. The deeper you interface an implant with the brain, the more able you are to detect signals. Even relatively simple motor tasks require substantial bandwidth, and it is doubtful that a non-invasive device could obtain enough information to expand telekinesis beyond the simplest tasks. Another problem is that all non-invasive methods currently produce data that’s too noisy, and too delayed with respect to neural response. The advantage lies in the fact that surgery is not required. Biotech researcher, Greg Stock, believes this would seriously limit the acceptance of semi and fully-invasive brain-machine interfaces:
“When I try to think of what I might gain by having a working link between my brain and a super computer, I am stymied if I insist on two criteria: That the benefit could not be as easily obtained through some, non-invasive procedure, and that the benefits must be worth the discomforts of brain surgery”.
WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH A BMI?
Currently, research into BMIs is primarily concerned with enabling disabled people to approach normality. There is a project underway whose goal it is to build an artificial hippocampus that could one day restore the ability to create new memories. But DARPA foresees a more radical use for such an implant. As Ted Berger (one of the key researchers involved in this project) explained, “the kinds of examples [the US department of defence] likes to use are coded information for flying an F-15”.
Yes, that’s right, they are thinking about downloading mental skills, just like Trinity did in ‘The Matrix’. Would this ability be advantageous enough to warrant brain surgery? Or could we just as easily consult a mobile device that had downloaded information from a website? Bruce Katz thinks there would be a distinct advantage to devices truly integrated into the consciousness of the user, compared to those that merely extend cognitive capabilities:
“[It] is similar to the difference between a good and a bad maths student…Students have been known to use computational devices to solve problems they should be working out by hand. The difference between the two, however, becomes apparent [when] a novel problem is presented or [when] the solution to a given problem needs to be incorporated into a larger theoretical framework”.
Yes, it would be kind of neat to be able to download knowledge direct to the brain, have the power of telekinesis over external objects, and to telepathically share thoughts. But just how feasible are these kinds of thing? Controlling external objects with the mind would be considerably easier than downloading knowledge to the brain, because one involves convergent signals while the other involves divergent information. When you decide to move your hand, many signals from different areas of the brain converge on the motor cortex which then controls the right muscles in the right way. An appropriately placed BMI could intercept these signals and transmit a command to move a robot hand or whatever.
But now consider what happens when you see a visual image. Incoming information is divided up by the brain into colour, form, and motion, which gets processed in parallel in over thirty different brain regions. This is what is meant by ‘divergent’ signals. Neuroscientist John Donoghue doubts that downloading knowledge to the brain is possible, for this very reason:
“Complex information like the contents of a book would require the interactions of a very large number of brain cells over a very large area of the nervous system. So, I would based on current knowledge, it’s not possible”.
A WAY AROUND THE PROBLEM.
But, this argument only holds water if BMIs are restricted to a localized area of the brain. In 2005, a team at the New York University School of Medicine performed a proof-of-principle experiment in which nanowires 100 times thinner than a human hair were guided into the vascular system of tissue samples, and then used to detect the activity of individual neurons lying next to the blood vessels. This demonstrates that it is possible in principle to thread nanowires through the circulatory system to any point in the body (brain included), without interfering with vital functions like blood flow or the exchange of nutrients. The researchers envision a “bouquet of nanowires branching out into tinier and tinier blood vessels until they reach specific locations in the brain”. Perhaps this could one day be developed into what Robert Frietas described as an ‘in-vivo fibre network, which could handle 10^18 bits/sec of data traffic, would include neuron-monitoring chemical sensors capable of recording relevant chemical effects occurring within a 5 microsecond time window, and which would…generate about 4-6 watts of waste heat (making it safe to install in a 25 watt human brain)”.
Such a network would be capable of realtime monitoring of the brain, so it would be possible to correlate what a person is doing or thinking or feeling with the precise brain activity that drives it. True, to really understand what we were monitoring, we would have to know how the neurons within each brain region function, and we would also need to take the various theories that describe aspects of brain function (such as the neural processes underpinning learning, and how muscles are controlled) and organize it all into a grand-unified theory of the brain. But we would not necessarily need to know how the brain works in order to induce various states of mind. We would only need to record such activity, and then drive the brain into the known configurations. Some neuroscientists remain sceptical with regards to downloading memories or ideas, but do agree that it could one day be possible to identify and drive the brain into states responsible for more basic and generic human emotions.
WHAT IS LIKELY AND WHAT IS NOT.
In terms of feasibility, then, we are very likely to be able to develop telekinesis, quite likely to develop more precise methods of controlling emotional states, and unlikely to download the contents of a book direct to the brain. The first, and most feasible, possibility would have implications for how we perceive the body and the surrounding environment. According to Lanier’s experiments, any object, no matter how much physical distance there may be between it and yourself, will nevertheless be incorporated into your body map if the brain can correlate a change in its state with a change in that object. And, in the same way that a feat like riding a bicycle can progress from a skill that demands concentration to one performed almost subconsciously, so too would a mind-controlled device eventually obey mental commands that the individual is not (consciously) thinking about.
Currently, we perceive the body as being a localized object occupying a well-defined location in space. But, would this perception still hold when more and more external objects respond to mental commands as directly as any limb would? In time, exteroception (the technical term for the brain’s maps of your body, its limbs, how they are orientated with respect to the environment, and the environment itself) might evolve into a perception of the body as highly decentred, indistinct, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. This perception would coincide with a change in the brain landscape to a ‘multiple minor’ (an adaptation to highly flexible lifestyles), with a loss of the distinct boundaries (such as work /home; employed/retired) that once defined our life’s narratives, and a blurring of the self and the other, achieved through a more intimate integration of the brain with the world-wide web. All of this is heading in roughly the same direction, which is to alter perceptions of a ‘core’ self, an unchanging aspect that remains constant even as, on a surface level, personalities change. This is a future in which the self has become a much vaguer phenomenon.
Some of the folk anticipating this change see it as a bad thing. They fear the development of increasingly compelling virtual worlds and the BMI’s ability to precisely control emotional states will be seen as a solution to feelings of inadequacy brought about a need to be highly adaptable in an uncertain world. They speak of people seeking oblivion, surrendering the self wholesale to a collective identity within fantasy worlds; indulging in the artificial happiness delivered by mood-altering drugs or their cyborg equivalents.
On the other hand, there are those who view this as an opportunity for a transformation and transcendence of the self, rather than its destruction. One such person is Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist who studies the neurological roots of happiness:
“We are on our way toward discovering that our personality…is far more flexible than we thought. And it’s going to give us a more fluid concept of the self and thus a different attitude towards our way of being”.
From a neurocentric point of view, happiness just is a chemical condition; a certain brain configuration, which makes fears that moods elevated by brain stimulation or mood-altering drugs would be ’artificial’ sound like confused thinking. Of course, drugs are not free of problems. Chemically-induced highs are crude, changing wholesale the landscape of the brain and having less-than desirable side-effects. But BMIs would allow much more precise control.
PRESS BUTTON FOR BLISS.
Inducing bliss by stimulating the brain via implants is not a just a futuristic possibility. As far back as 1950, the psychologist Robert Heath implanted electrodes in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in an attempt to cure illness in mental patients. Heath noted the behaviour of one patient (known only as B-19), who “stimulated himself to the point where he was experiencing an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation, and had to be disconnected, despite his vigorous protests”.
What is going on here, from a neurocentric point of view? The VTA is one of two primary structures (the other one being the nucleus accumbens) within a pathway known as the medial forebrain bundle or MFB. The MFB is a collection of fibres connecting to various midbrain, limbic and cortical structures. Neuroscientists believe the VTA is responsible for the processing of reward signals generated by the cortex. If these structures are directly stimulated, the brain is fooled into thinking that it has performed some action deserving of reward. Neuroengineer Bruce Katz noted how a huge number of things make us happy, and that it would be overly complex to evolve brain circuitry that directly produced a mass action in the brain for each individual stimulus. Instead, “a stimulus, via conditioning, is associated with the triggering of a small set of structures. These, in turn, initiate a global response and they do so by suppressing thoughts that inhibit the ability of neural populations to enter into global synchrony…To create pleasure one merely needs to stimulate the central reward mechanism”.
The idea that global synchrony is a key factor in well-being is backed up by fMRI studies. People who are well-practiced in the art of meditation show a powerfully increased gamma rhythm as well as in the alpha Hz band. At the neural level, alpha is associated with an increasing synchronization of firing between neurons. On the psychological level, this is associated with the relaxed but aware states that are characteristic of meditation. The more powerful the gamma rhythm is, the more precisely the network of brain cells can communicate, thereby increasing coherence over neural populations. Lone Frank compared the brain in this state to a “jazz band that sounds so much better when they are synchronized than when they each play to maximize their own sound”.
There is ample evidence that meditation improves wellbeing. Psychological experiments have shown that ‘mindfulness meditation’ (in which one learns to disregard negative thoughts and focus instead in positive ones) significantly improves one’s outlook on life and lowers stress levels. Psychology is collaborating with brain sciences in order to link feelings of well-being with specific brain-states. We might then take a more direct route to achieving a meditative state by driving the brain into the right configurations via BMIs.
Stimulating the central reward structures would not sustain bliss indefinitely. This is because the brain comes equipped with homeostatic mechanisms that come into play and return the brain to a more balanced state-of-mind. True, if it becomes possible to stimulate many areas of the brain at once, the homeostatic mechanisms might be controlled in such a way as to sustain the blissful state indefinitely. For pessimists, this sounds like a dystopian future in which people are reduced to automatons, endlessly pressing the button for an artificial high and neglecting all else. But Bruce Katz argued against this:
“Bliss…is so desirable that it quells all other desires, and this paradoxically contains its downfall. We are not merely neo-behaviourist systems…attempting to get the most reward for least effort, but also… seeking to strive and grow, and to understand”.
KERNAL PLEASURE PRINCIPLE
Katz’s studies into the neuronal correlates of happiness indicate that fixating on a closed sequence of thoughts is characteristic of displeasure, and a free flow of thoughts, with frequent or partial overlaps between them, characterizes the state of pleasure. From this insight, and various other findings in psychology and neuroscience, Katz came up with the ‘Kernal Pleasure Principle’ or KPP. According to KPP, the ability to feel pleasure depends on the extent to which your brain is able to unify its various sensations, “In practice”, explained Katz, “These conditions imply the necessity of relatively large levels of synchrony between the neural populations processing a stimulus or set of stimuli in order to feel pleasure”. On a psychological level, a person in this state-of-mind would be experiencing a ‘relaxed concentration’. “Is clear that meditation is both soothing and stress relieving”, Katz observed, “and in the accomplished practitioner, may also be a window into the ineffable”.
Tibetan monks are among the most accomplished of practitioners, capable of states-of-mind in which the person feels at one with the universe. When a technique called SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) was used to measure brain activity in meditating Tibetan Buddhists, the left prosterior parietal lobe was found to have less activity than normal. This part of the brain helps us navigate our environments, and it does this by integrating a mass of sense information. Simply put, the more active the left prosterior parietal lobe is, the more aware you are of the world outside of yourself. Conversely, reduced activity will bring about a feeling that there is nothing outside; a sensation of merging with everything else.
As well as being capable of feeling at one with the universe, the mind can also generate an impression of occupying a location separate to the body. One way to achieve this is through VR setups where there is a closed-loop between the senses and a remote body. Another method is used in the field of cognitive religious studies, the purpose of which is to correlate religious and/or spiritual feelings with brain activity. One of the practitioners in this field- Professor Michael Perssinger- uses a helmet equipped with magnetic coils that can be programmed to emit a pattern of magnetic pulses directed at selected areas of the cerebral cortex.
In 8 out of 10 people, this results in a strong sense that there is somebody in the room with you (in the experiments, the volunteers are left alone in the room and monitored via CCTV in an adjacent room). You cannot see or hear this person, you just have a strong impression that somebody else is present. Persinger’s device earned the nickname ‘the god helmet’ after some people attributed this presence to a well-known religious figure like Jesus. Persinger believes the ‘sensed presence’ is caused by the brain not having a single sense of self but several, and these ‘selves’ are created in different parts of the brain. Depending on how the brain is functioning, these selves can either feel like aspects of one’s own self or, in certain conditions, they can feel like autonomous entities. Persinger said:
“Our normal sense of self- what I usually describe as ‘me’- is connected to the left hemisphere of the brain. That’s where a lot of linguistic activity takes place and the sense of self is a very linguistic phenomenon. The right hemisphere, however, has its own counterpart to the left’s sense of self, but it is inhibited or repressed by the communication that goes on between the two hemispheres”.
So, the ‘self’ generated by the right hemisphere does not normally enter into our conscious awareness. But, given the proper conditions, the right counterpart can intervene on consciousness and when it does so, it is perceived as an ‘other’ rather than as ‘me’.
The technological fruits of this endeavour to correlate a broad range of spiritual states with patterns of brain activity would be BMIs that can drive the brain into the right configurations, thereby allowing anyone to feel bliss, or relaxed awareness, or feel a sensed presence, or feel they are floating outside of their own body, at one with the universe. All of this will coincide with a reality where adaptability to change is paramount. Rita Carter observed how “ lives were constrained by duty, custom, limited horizons…Now, suddenly, we find ourselves in a world where flexibility, adaptability and personal reinvention are not just acceptable but positively encouraged”.
In the final part of this series, we will consider how all these factors will play a part in making obsolete that most infamous question that whole brain emulation poses: Does uploading equal life-after-death for the self?