PART 3: TOWARD POSTHUMAN LOVE
What would being romantically intelligent entail? I rather like Katja Grace’s explanation, which equates greater efficiency in dating and relationships with higher romantic intelligence. In her words, “I will say we are better at romance when we are more efficient at it, that is, when we get more benefits for the costs we incur”. I see the road to transhumanism offering a helping hand in two broad ways. Firstly, scientific investigations into human nature may lead to a more refined understanding of love. This is the goal of Brian Epstein, a professor of psychology at Harvard. “Over the years, having looked carefully at the fast-growing literature of relationship science and having conducted research of my own, I have come to believe that there is a definite fix for our poor performance in romantic relationships. The fix is to extract a practical technology from the research and teach people how to use it”. Here we see the other way in which the road to transhumanism may help, which is by developing technologies that will enhance efficiency in romantic relationships.
Epstein spoke of our ‘poor performance’ in romantic relationships. This rather bleak appraisal is probably due to the fact that roughly half of marriages fail in the US. Explanations as to why this should be include entering relationships with poor skills for maintaining them, and mistaking physical attraction for love. In an article for New Scientist (‘Engineering Love’) Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg point out a correlation between the current global median duration of marriage (11 years) and human lifespan throughout most of the species’ history. In a state of nature, the maximum lifespan is 30 and this meant that at least 50 percent of relationships ended with the death of one spouse after 15 years. We modern humans with our complex medical facilities and social security live twice as long and, arguably, we are simply outliving our evolved capacity to stay committed.
Yet another reason for our poor performance has to do with attachment, which we first looked at in part 2. To recap, attachment theory is based on the idea that evolution has programmed us to single out a few specific individuals and seek their support by ensuring their physical and psychological proximity. In order to ensure this happens, our brains have evolved a biological mechanism consisting of emotions and behaviours responsible for creating and regulating connections with attachment figures. This mechanism is known as the ‘attachment system’.
People have different ‘attachment styles’. There are four types, each determined by a) the individual’s comfort with intimacy and closeness and b) the levels of preoccupation with the relationship and his or her level of anxiety about his or her partner’s love and attentiveness. Those individuals who are comfortable with intimacy and do not obsess much about the relationship or their partner’s ability to love them back possess a ‘secure’ attachment style. Those who greatly value their independence and freedom, are not all that concerned with their partner’s feelings and closeness or commitment but who feel uncomfortable with intimacy and closeness are said to have an ‘avoidant’ attachment style. Individuals who are preoccupied with the relationship, crave intimacy and tend to worry about whether their partner really loves them have an ‘anxious’ attachment style. Finally, there is a rare combination of the anxious and avoidant styles, characterised by being both uncomfortable with intimacy and being very concerned about one’s partner’s commitments.
Studies show that individuals with a secure attachment style report higher levels of satisfaction compared to people with other attachment styles. One such study, conducted by Patrick Keelan and Kenneth and Karen Dion, followed 100 students who were in dating relationships over a 4 month period. Secure individuals were able to maintain high levels of relationship satisfaction, commitment and trust, whereas those with an insecure attachment style reported decreasing levels of all three over the same four months.
If you have a secure attachment style you are attuned to your partner’s emotional and physical cues, and you know how to respond to them effectively. Your emotional system is not overly sensitive to threats to the relationship (as is the case with the anxious attachment system) and increasing closeness and intimacy does not make such a person uncomfortable (as happens with the avoidant attachment style). All in all, it would seem obvious that the surest way of obtaining a lasting romantic relationship would be to date someone with a secure attachment style. It seems equally obvious that those with an anxious attachment style should avoid avoidants at all costs and vice versa. But, actually, these two styles often come together and the result is, not surprisingly, a relationship with low levels of satisfaction and high anxiety.
Why would two such incompatible styles be drawn together? There are several reasons. Firstly, avoidants never date each other, at least not for long, because they lack the emotional glue to stay together. Secondly, if you have an avoidant style you tend to end relationships more frequently and ‘get over’ former relationships sooner than those with other attachment styles do. Conversely, those with a secure attachment style take much longer to reappear in the dating pool. Because there are not that many single secures available and because avoidant-avoidant relationships never happen (at least not for long) avoidants mostly date those with an anxious attachment style.
If you are a person with an anxious style who is dating an avoidant, yours is very likely a real rollercoaster of a relationship. It would be wrong to assume avoidants lack an attachment system. They do possess one, everybody does, and that’s why they seek out partners in the first place. But, because they crave independence, the avoidant has the urge to suppress the need for closeness and intimacy with so-called ‘deactivating strategies’ (behaviours or thoughts designed to squelch intimacy). These conflicting needs (the need to be in a relationship versus the need for independence) leads to lots of mixed messages. For someone with an anxious style this uncertainty regarding a partner’s feelings and level of commitment leads to great obsession, preoccupation, high anxiety and occasional spikes of joy when the partner makes a rare romantic gesture. In short, this kind of relationship leads to a highly activated attachment system and there is a tendency to mistake those emotional highs and lows for love. When somebody with this perception of love enters a relationship with a secure partner, there are no mixed messages, no tension and suspense, and so the attachment system is much calmer. But this can lead to fallacious thinking, namely that the relationship is boring or lacking in passion. So although people would say they are on the lookout for mr or miss right, we often have highly unrealistic expectations and an inability to distinguish love from mere physical attraction or the emotional highs and lows of an anxious-avoidant relationship, and this leads us to date Mr or Miss Wrong!
If transhumanists were more romantically intelligent than us, part of that increased efficiency would surely entail dating fewer unsuitable partners. We might even suppose that if they are really efficient, each transhuman would seek out and date only one person, namely, that one special individual who is Mr or Miss Right. I think a more realistic expectation is that transhumanists will understand that there is no such thing as Mr or Miss Right, at least not in the sense that we each have but one person somewhere out there. Rather, there are many people out there who would make great partners and such individuals have the capability to be made into ‘the one’ if both are willing to work at developing a committed, loving relationship. If they understand that, transhumanists would also reject the notion of ‘love at first sight’. This is based on the fallacious idea that ‘the one’ is out there and it is destiny to meet this person. A romantically intelligent mind would not mistake love for mere physical attraction and would understand that you cannot love somebody without knowing that person.
The trick, then, is to pick out the suitable few from a crowd of not-so-compatible people. The most obvious technological aid for matchmaking is Internet Dating. What these services can offer above and beyond ‘offline’ dating is a far larger pool to choose from. One ‘matchmaker’, for example, signs up to 200,000 new members per month. If one has to kiss a lot of frogs in order to meet a prince, the ability to go through more candidates in a week than you would otherwise have met in a year could help hurry that process along.
But there is a downside to the massive numbers of candidates that online dating can provide. For one thing, the numbers can be overwhelming. An attractive young woman would almost certainly receive more requests than she could ever hope to respond to. There is always a danger that her best prospect was the one hundredth person to email her but she stopped picking up after the 67th email. There can also be the disappointing experience of finding hundreds of suitable candidates, only to find not one responds to your attempts to make contact. If this does happen it is not always because there is something wrong with you. Sites like Match.com advertise around 15 million members, but out of that multitude less than a million are full paying customers. Since it is only full-paying members who can respond to email (the rest have full profiles online but cannot respond to email) it is highly probable that you will meet a lack of response.
Another disadvantage of online matchmaking’s larger number of candidates is that it invariably increases the number of folks you would never want to meet. The stererotype, of course, is that only the kind of people you would never want to meet use online dating. Like most stereotypes this is a gross exaggeration. Nevertheless, the anonymity of the online environment and the greater opportunities this provides to present oneself in the most flattering light possible does rather select for those who have difficulties with meeting people face-to-face.
WAYS TO PICK THE WINNER
If the problem is picking out the best candidates from a vast dating pool, the solution must be some method of making the selection process less random. Many major online dating sites incorporate sophisticated psychological profiling in an attempt to make the process of matching up clients more ‘hit’ than ‘miss’. Such profiles range from fairly basic pop-psychology tests (such as the multitude of quick tests that ‘emode’ offers, such as ‘what breed of dog are you?’) to the “scientific, 29-dimension” test offered up by E-Harmony, the completion of which would require hours of painstaking work and deep self-analysis.
Do the tests work? Two hurdles need to be cleared before any psychometric evaluation can be taken seriously by the scientific community. You need to be able to count on it to produce stable results, and it has to show that it is a valid measure of what it is supposed to measure. If it could be shown in a peer-reviewed way that online matchmaking reliably pairs up successful romantic partners, that would validate these tests. Unfortunately, according to Robert Epstein, not a single one of these tests has ever been subject to proper peer-review. E-Harmony’s test and statistics was independently investigated by a team that included a former president of the American Psychological Association, and their conclusion was:
“When E-Harmony recommends someone as a compatible match, there is a 1 in 500 chance that you’ll marry this person…Given that E-Harmony delivers about 1.5 matches per month, if you went on a date with all of them it would take 346 dates and 19 years to reach [a] 50% chance of getting married”.
It seems, then that current online tests are not very good at creating successful matches. One reason why not is because have yet to figure out just what creates ‘chemistry’. What online matchmaking tends to do instead is pair people up who are similar in various ways. There is some logic to this method because, as we saw in part 2, people tend to be most attracted to those whose beauty, intelligence, economic status (to name a few) are similar to our own. But this is in no way a surefire guarantee that any two people will make a happy couple and we still do not know what it is that makes you select that particular person out of a crowd of suitable candidates.
Still, online matchmaking is such a lucrative business (worth around $600 million as of 2008) and the mystery of love such a fascinating subject, it seems fairly certain that if the rules of attraction and pair-bonding can be understood in principle, eventually those rules will be laid bare by science. It could be that data-intensive science could analyse the digital footprints of the tens of millions of people who use Internet dating sites, not to mention the larger numbers who use the Internet for flirting and organizing their social and love lives, and find subtle patterns in that data that could be used to make the process of picking our suitable partners less random. Anticipating such refinements in our ability to predict successful pairings, Neil Warren (the clinical psychologist responsible for E-Harmony’s online test) said, “my dream is that someday this matchmaking will be so precise that we will only have to give people 3 or 4 potential matches to choose from”. Just as today we are seeing the rise of personal genomics, perhaps in the transhuman future it will be possible to obtain a personal blueprint of attraction that would make for much more precise search through the dating pool.
In the meantime, other ways of reducing the ‘misses’ and increasing the ‘hits’ are being explored. One idea is to apply a community approach to matchmaking. Hitherto, only individuals have been allowed to seek out prospective partners, but now some services like ‘Engage’ allow family members and friends to join in. This gets closer to how matchmaking works in real life. Particularly in the West, we like to believe that choosing a romantic partner is very much down to the individual. That may be one reason why online dating has struggled for full acceptance (even now plenty of people who use the service lie about the circumstances under which they met their date). Whether it is impulsive or a carefully-planned decision, we like to believe that the choice of who we date is a personal one and nobody else’s business.
But, although we like to believe we make our own destiny when it comes to love, the fact is that partner choice is to a great extent determined by our social network. In romantic films it is often a serendipitous event that brings two strangers together but in real life ( according to a 1992 National Life and Social Health survey involving 3,432 people aged 18 to 59) 68% of people are introduced to their future spouse by someone they know.
According to a ScientificAmericanMind article (‘Love The One You’re With’ by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler), “the structure of real social networks is perfectly suited to generating lots of leads. If you are single and you know 20 people reasonably well (enough that they would invite you to a party), and each of them knows 20 other people, and each of them knows 20 more, then you are connected to 8,000 people who are three degrees of separation away and one of those men or women is in all likelihood your future spouse. Relying on social networks to find suitable partners also includes the benefit of other people’s knowledge of both you and your prospective partner. Whereas you may only know about yourself, other people within your social network may know a great deal about what kind of person you are and have such knowledge about other people. Where online social networks are concerned, the web of connections can be so wide and ties so tenuous that the individual may have a great many ‘friends’ who are so loosely connected, relying on friends to determine compatibility would probably not work in all cases. It is well-known that online social networks obsessively track personal information, though, and combining such data with community rating schemes like an e-bay system for prospective partners might help pick out people whose attraction style best complements your own and the kind of relationship you are looking for.
So, in the future, science may finally understand ‘chemistry’ or why you are pair bond with one person rather than another, and this knowledge will be built into matching services. Or, those services might use a combination of mutual friends and colleagues’ knowledge plus the information we all give away whether we know it or not and employ advanced data-mining and pattern recognition to help narrow the search for a suitable partner. Whatever happens, it does seem reasonable to assume that if science and technology can become effective at selecting a manageable pool of suitable candidates, more and more of us would rely on such aids in our pursuit of love. It may even be the case that our transhuman descendents look back and wonder how anyone ever managed to find dream matches without the ability to screen prospective partners online!
WHEN VR DATING IS AS GOOD AS THE REAL THING..
Ok, so you’ve got the scientific knowledge and technological aids that can reliably filter out inappropriate partners, leaving only those who are likely to be just the type you are looking for. But this is still only the beginning. Now you have to work on developing the relationship.
A SciAmMind article by Robert Epstein (‘The Truth About Online Dating’) argued that ‘Virtual Dating’ would be the next step in online dating. Referring to a study by Harvard University’s Michael Norton, Epstein reported, “people who had a chance to interact with each other (by computer only) on a virtual tour of a museum subsequently had more successful face-to-face meetings than people who viewed only profiles”. Advantages to dating in this way are not difficult to imagine. One obvious advantage over real-life dating is the extra safety. A virtual date that makes you feel on edge can be terminated at the press of a button. Then there is the greater ease with which an avatar can be made to look good. As one resident explained to Tom Boellstorff in ‘Coming Of Age In Second Life’, “you could get together with friends and go to a club without spending an hour getting ready and 100 bucks at the bar”.
Now, admittedly, the current SL experience has too many downsides for it to be seriously considered as a real alternative to old-fashioned face-to-face dating. And yet, despite the technical limitations and less-than-satisfactory experience those deficiencies too often impose, many, many people are already involved in virtual dating. It seems reasonable to assume, then, that if people like tech guru Ray Kurzweil and Virtual Reality experts Jeremy Bailenson and Jim Blascovich are right in saying VR will one day be perceptually indistinguishable from physical reality, even more people will opt for at least some virtual dating as part of developing a romantic relationship.
In another article for SciAmMind (‘How Science Can Help You Fall In Love’) Robert Epstein lists ten techniques for building strong relationships, and virtual dating seems particularly suited to several of them. Epstein cites studies that show “people tend to bond when aroused, say, through exercise, adventure, or exposure to dangerous situations”. Recall from part 2 how, even with current VR, the mind can be fooled into believing a risky action is being taken. Now imagine the thrilling dates couples could safely indulge in once VR is perceptually indistinguishable from real life. The safety aspect of virtual dating lends itself to another technique for relationship-building, namely, the lowering of inhibitions. Epstein writes, “inhibitions block feelings of vulnerability, so lowering inhibitions can indeed help people bond”. Because VR is so much more controllable and any situation so easily escapable, couples would almost certainly lower their inhibitions. Yet another aspect that VR is well suited to is ‘novelty’. Epstein writes, “psychologist Greg Strong of Florida State University, Aron and others have shown that people tend to grow closer when they are doing something new. Novelty heightens the senses and also makes people feel vulnerable”. Couples embarking on virtual dates would have a limitless choice of novel environments and situations to experience, from meeting up in perfect recreations of the world’s most romantic locations, to fantastical adventures that would not be possible in physical reality.
SUPERPOWER YOUR AVATAR FOR SEDUCTION
Avatars, too, could become powerful tools for seduction. Jeremy Bailenson and Jim Blaschovich pointed out how “the ability… to create perfectly socially responsive virtual humans is limited only by the knowledge of the social rules”, before going on to give an example of an avatar superpowered for attraction. This technique is based on findings that intimacy is increased when couples mimic one another’s body language. For instance, Epstein recommends exercises such as “synchronise your breathing with his or hers” and “start moving your hands, arms and legs any way you like- but in a fashion that perfectly imitates your partner”. What Bailenson and Blaschovich did was to track the movements of one avatar and then use that data to make another avatar mimic those movements. It was found that if there is a four second delay before the movement is copied, very few people are aware of the mimicry, but there is a positive subconscious effect. As the authors themselves put it, “in several studies we have demonstrated that if Ellen’s avatar is superpowered this way, John will like her more”. They then go on to suggest that “Ellen can maximize her charms by using automatic, scripted, nonverbal mimicry, and she can then dedicate more of her cognitive resources to devising clever and witty things to say”.
Another possible method for superpowering an avatar was discovered in an experiment conducted in the 1960s. In this study, which was conducted by Stuart Valins of State University, New York, male participants were asked to look at Playboy centrefolds while listening to beeps that corresponded to their heartbeats. Their task was to rate the attractiveness of each model. Now, what the participants did not know was that sometimes those beeps were being artificially adjusted to indicate a slower or faster beat. When they detected these changes, the men figured it must have indicated a quickening or slowing of their own heartbeat and they attributed the cause to the image they were viewing. As a result, they rated these models as being more attractive. According to Andrew Fiore, who is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkely, a few years from now we will be able to add physiological signs, such as the sound of your date’s heartbeat, to the virtual dating experience. Who knows, maybe your physiological signs will be subtley adjusted to maximize the likelyhood of a ‘hit’?
In these situations we are imagining technologies that are worn, such as VR glasses and haptic suits. But if some futurists are to be believed, the trend towards more personal information tech and computing will not end with wearables such as these. No, we shall become even more intimately connected to our tech by assimilating it into ourselves. The endeavour to reverse-engineer the brain and the ongoing task to interface it directly with technology points to a future in which we have both an exquisite understanding of how the mind works and the technical capability to adjust and augment the brain. How might such tech be used to maximise romantic intelligence?
With sufficient ability to adjust the workings of the mind, transhumanists may be able to maximize the advantages of each attraction style while simultaneously minimizing the disadvantages. Starting with the ‘anxious’ style, the advantage here is that people with this attachment style are much more attuned to their own and others’ emotions, compared to other attachment styles. One study that verifies this claim involves watching faces that gradually morph from a neutral expression to one that displays an emotion. People with an anxious attachment style tend to perceive the onset and offset of emotion earlier than other people. The downside of this attraction style is that such people often jump to the wrong conclusions. FMRI studies show that when people with an anxious style are asked to imagine negative scenarios like a relationship breakup, there is more activity in emotion-related areas compared to people with other attachment styles, but less activity in areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation. The result is that people with an anxious attachment style are very sensitive to their partner’s emotions but often attribute the wrong cause of a change in mood. Mostly, they worry that they are the cause. With more control over the workings of the brain, transhumanists might choose to keep heightened sensitivity to emotions while boosting the ability to assess the nature and cause of their partner’s emotional states.
If the ‘anxious’ style heightens sensitivity to emotions, the ‘avoidant’ style allows one to ‘get over’ relationships more quickly. When people talk about the pain of separation they are not just talking metaphorically. FMRI images show that people experiencing heartache through separation from their partner have activity in areas that are also seen in people suffering an injury like a broken leg. This shows that the mind really does experience separation from an attachment figure as physical pain. No wonder breaking up is hard to do!
People with an avoidant style are very adept at employing ‘deactivating strategies’, or behaviours and thoughts designed to squelch intimacy. The downside is that people with an avoidant style tend to be too quick to employ them. Because they are very independent people, they tend to perceive closeness and intimacy as threats to their autonomy and use deactivating strategies to keep partners at arm’s length. Despite the emphasis they place an autonomy and independence, avoidants still have an attachment system that compels them to seek out partners. But they tend to search for an idealized mate like a ‘phantom ex’ (an old flame about whom they are convinced was perfect after all) or ‘the one’ (ie somebody they imagine to be just perfect). Both the phantom ex and ‘the one’ also serve as deactivating strategies, because they can be used to remind current partners that he or she is competing with an idealised ‘other’ with whom he or she cannot hope to compare. If any partner habitually talks about a phantom ex or ‘the one’ (while indicating this person is not you) that is a fairly solid indicator of an avoidant attachment style.
Of course, overzealous use of deactivating strategies is hardly useful for developing lasting romantic relationships. But if they are more romantically-intelligent than us, transhumanists would be more adept at switching to an avoidant style and using deactivating strategies if and when circumstances truly call for it. When I asked some members of Facebook transhumanist groups what kind of abilities transhuman romance would include, Viktor Lawryniuck answered: “As a posthuman I would anticipate having more controls built in. Perhaps I could sandbox these emotions so that I could choose to experience them but have the fail safe of being able to extricate myself as well”.
ENGINEERING A SELF-ACTUALIZED MIND
But of all the attachment styles, the one transhumanists would mostly adopt would almost certainly be the ‘secure’ style. Neither overwhelmed by fear of rejection or being slighted as is the case with the anxious style, nor uncomfortable with closeness and too ready to deactivate like avoidants, the secure attachment style offers the most sustained and consistent levels of satisfaction for both oneself and one’s partner. In many ways, this attachment style shares similarities with self-actualization, the apex of personal development in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For instance, according to Maslow’s studies, self-actualized people possess qualities like being able to distinguish the fraudulent from the genuine, and possess a better insight of reality, others, and the world. The essential quality of the self-actualized mind is encapsulated in Maslow’s slogan ‘what a man can be, he must be’. It is, as neuroengineer Bruce Katz put it, “nothing more than living one’s life fully, without unnecessary distractions and unnecessary thoughts”.
It so happens that people with a secure attachment style tend to be great communicators. They are attuned to their partner’s emotional and physical cues and know how to respond to them. They possess a clear understanding of their own sexuality and relationship needs, thereby able to discuss such things in a sensitive, empathetic and, above all, a coherent manner. In ‘Attached: Identify Your Attachment Style And Find Your Perfect Match”, Dr Amir Levin and Rachel Heller lay down five principles of effective communication, which includes the need to understand and be genuine and honest about your feelings; focusing on your needs and get them across clearly and concisely while taking your partner’s needs into consideration; maintaining focus on the real source of any problem as and when they arise. All of which sounds like a self-actualized state of mind. As Bruce Katz put it, “the self-actualized mind will see what there is to be seen, hear what there is to be heard… perceived fully and without unnecessary intellectual adornment”.
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need for friendship, belonging and sexual intimacy comes before needs associated with esteem and self-actualization. Maybe that is why the secure style shares similarities. People who possess such a style are more likely to form lasting relationships and therefore can move up the hierarchy. Studies have shown that when our partners are thoroughly dependable and able to reassure when times are hard, we feel much more secure and can turn our attention to other aspects of life. This is known as the ‘dependency paradox’, so called because the more we can depend on a significant other to act as a secure base, the more confident we feel about stepping out into the world on our own.
Given the similarities, it is reasonable to suppose that if one could achieve self-actualization more quickly, one would possess a state of mind best suited for sustaining a successful romantic relationship. How might transhumanism achieve this accelerated ascent up the hierarchy of needs? One way might be to use the power of technology to efficiently achieve each level. Maybe one day bio and nanotechnology will deliver abundant material wealth, thereby allowing fundamental physiological needs like food and shelter to be easily met. Robotics, computing and information technologies might one day enable a jobless society in which people are free to concentrate on developing interpersonal skills and fulfilling hobbies that provide a sense of achievement.
Bruce Katz suggests using neuroengineering and brain-computer interfaces (BCI) to effectively leap-frog us up to the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In his own words, “the trick is to produce, on a reliable basis across the populace, and on a consistent basis within a given individual, what Maslow would call a self-actualized being”. With sufficient ability to monitor and control brain states, BCI’s might one day be able to detect when a brain is stuck in a worrying state (perhaps by noticing increased and sustained amygdyla activity, or noticing when a particular brain state is being returned to again and again) stepping in to drive the brain into a state more conducive for clear thinking. “If by no other means”, wrote Katz, “It will be possible to produce these states by reverse-engineering; that is, by studying those who have a gift for entering these attentive modes, and transferring the results to those less fortunate”.
If the self-actualized mind would indeed enable a secure attachment style, there may be a positive feedback effect in which this particular style spreads through a social network. This is due to something known as ‘security priming’. When people can recall a past relationship with a secure person, or be inspired by a secure role model in their lives, they are often successful in adopting the secure attachment style themselves. In other words, we might not all need BCIs and neuroengineering to achieve a secure mindset. It might be enough to have some secure, self-actualized beings in any social network and let effective communications spread inspiration to the rest.
LINKING BCI’S: NOW YOU FEEL WHAT I FEEL
Of course, having a real BCI would open up all kinds of opportunities for enhancing romantic relationships. Perhaps the primary advantage would be to radically enhance the essential quality of pair-bonding. When we talk about ‘couples’ in a relationship this is not just a figure of speech; to be in an intimate relationship with someone is to form a psychological unit. A study by James Coan, who is director of the Affective Neuroscience laboratory at the university of Virginia, shows how we react to stressful conditions when we are alone, when we have the support of a stranger, and when a spouse is standing by us. Alone, the anticipation of a mild electric shock leads to increased activity in the hypothalamus. While holding a stranger’s hand, the activity is reduced, and if it is a spouse’s hand we are holding, activity in the hypothalamus is barely detectable. These results show that two people who are in an intimate relationship regulate one another’s psychological and emotional well-being. Other studies have shown that the physical presence of another person is important for regulating the circadian rhythm, dopamine levels, the menstrual cycle, and a lot more besides.
Quite recently, anatomists discovered a hitherto unknown cranial nerve. These are so called because unlike most nerves (which enter the brain through the spinal cord) cranial nerves enter the brain directly. It is these nerves that provide the sense of smell, sight, hearing, taste, and touch. They are also involved in the movement of the eyes, jaw, tongue and face.
The newly-discovered cranial nerve is called ‘nerve zero’. It has its endings in the nasal cavity, but unlike the olfactory nerve which connects to the olfactory bulb (which provides us with the sense of smell) nerve zero relays messages to the medial and lateral septal nuclei and preopctic areas of the brain. These regions control our most basic urges, such as thirst, hunger, and the sex drive. Everybody knows that splashing on a bit of perfume or cologne is an important part of the ritual of preparing for a date, and the role of pheromones in human attraction has long been debated over. Now the existence of nerve zero suggests a very subtle form of allure may be going on. R. Douglas Fields, a professor of neuroscience, said of nerve zero, “if pheromones were to excite nerve endings that convey their signals directly to brain regions controlling sexual reproduction, bypassing the cerebral cortex where consciousness arises, they could act like an unseen olfactory Cupid- putting a romantic twinkle in the eye of a certain member of the opposite sex- and we would never know it”.
The key point is that human beings are in constant communication with one another. Not just through spoken and body language but also through exchanges of pheromones, heat, smell and touch. Michael Chorost, author of ‘World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humans and Machines’, believes these “constitute a virtual corpus callosum connecting all human beings together. It’s nonmaterial and its more diffuse than the one in our heads, but it’s none the less real for all that”.
The corpus callosum can be thought of as a high-speed communications cable relaying messages back and forth between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. If we had no corpus callosum, the left and right hemispheres would effectively be separate entities, and no unified consciousness would be able to arise from these disparate parts. If BCI’s could communicate with one brain and wirelessly relay messages to other BCI’s which then message the brain they interface with, we could effectively turn the Internet into a kind of corpus callosum. How this might be achieved is something I covered in another paper (‘Pond Scum, Scared Mice and the Global Brain’) so for details on the technical side of things, read that. With such a high-speed wireless link between two brains, a couple would form a psychological unit more tightly integrated than anything anyone without a BCI could ever experience. By relaying information about your partner’s whereabouts to the areas of the brain responsible for the sense of exteroception (the ability to track where your limbs are and how your body is orientated with respect to space) you would be able to coordinate your movements with that of your partner to an exacting degree, and it would feel to one like the other was an extension of the body. In ‘Sex and the Singularity’, Alex Lightman remarked, “one of the most profound pleasures of sex is what I shall call the ‘empathy hall of mirrors effect’. That is, to be not only able to feel what your lover is feeling but also feel what your lover is feeling”. BCI’s communicating via high-speed wireless could radically enhance such couplings. They would not allow you to know exactly how your partner feels, because the information they relay would be filtered through your own unique set of experiences. But this kind of linkup would surely enable a deep and intuitive ability to correctly infer one another’s moods; to empathise with that person more completely than was ever possible when individuals communicated through speech and the like.
SHINY, HAPPY PEOPLE
With BCI’s and neuroengineering we may be able to radically enhance our ability to feel happy, as well as other states conducive to well-being. The ability to artificially induce intense feelings of bliss via BCI began in the 1950s, when a rat’s nucleus accumbens was stimulated with a small electric current delivered to the brain via an implanted electrode. The nucleus accumbens is part of the reward circuit of the brain, and when it is stimulated with a mild electric current the brain is fooled into thinking an action worthy of reward has been taken. That reward is to make the rat feel great. So great, in fact, that if it is allowed to stimulate itself by pressing a button, it will do so obsessively and indefinitely, until at last exhaustion compels it to sleep.
Does this work with people too? In the 1960s, a psychologist called Robert Heath implanted electrodes into the brains of mental patients. Writing about one such person (known to us only as ‘B-19’) Heath remarked, “during these sessions, B-19 stimulated himself to the point where he was experiencing an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation, and had to be disconnected despite his vigerous protests”.
There is some controversy over what state of mind such stimulation triggers. Some say that a careful analysis of the responses of Heath’s subjects show that they are in a state of desire but not necessarily achieving fulfillment of desire. With more refined methods of control that optogenetics could enable (see ‘Pond Scum..’ for more details) we may be able to not only induce desire but fulfilment as well. Bruce Katz proposes the ‘Extended Bliss Principle’. That is, “to place anyone, anywhere, and at any time, and as long as they wish to remain there, in a deliciously blissful state”. Nonstop ultra-orgasm! To achieve this, we would have to overcome homeostatic mechanisms in the brain (it will produce less of the indogenous chemicals and reduce the number of dopamninogenic receptors in the brain to compensate for artificially increased levels). Perhaps this can be achieved by stimulating many areas at once, bypassing the homeostatic mechanisms.
In ‘The Genomic Bodhisatva’, David Pearce proposes we “recalibrate the hedonistic treadmill” through post-genomic medicine (BCI’s would work just as well, I would imagine). He writes, “experimentally, it can be shown that enhancing mesolimbic dopamine function doesn’t just make us happier: it also enriches willpower and motivation”.
Pearce is a strong advocate for a transhuman future in which “super intelligent beings will be fired by gradients of bliss orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences”. Can neuroengineering deliver such a future? There are hints that it might be possible. In a TED talk, Talin Sharot referred to studies she has collaborated on, in which volunteers have powerful magnetic pulses passed through the skull. When these pulses are directed at regions of the brain that have something to do with integrating bad news, there was an increase in ‘optimism bias’ (the tendency to underestimate the likelyhood of experiencing a bad outcome and overestimating the likelyhood of good fortune coming your way). When regions associated with the integration of good news were disabled, the optimism bias disappeared. So, even with today’s relatively crude neuroscience and magnetic pulses, we can boost or diminish the tendency to view the future through rose-tinted glasses. With a more refined understanding of the workings of the mind coupled with technological advances that grant a more exacting control over the brain, we may be able to “recalibrate the hedonistic treadmil” and equip ourselves with supremely self-actualized states of mind that can enter and sustain relationships with an intimacy, empathy and depth of clarity beyond the ability of the unaugmented brain.
With BCIs driving the evolution of the Web from a tool of information distribution to a technology of (trans)human interaction, we would find ourselves on the brink of post-humanity. Speculative technologies like substrate-independent minds and fog swarms (microscopic robots that can connect together to form arbitrary structures and which can create arbitrary wave fronts of light and sound in any direction, and exert any pattern of pressure to create any tactile environment) hint at the total virtualization of the body and mind. With that capability comes the opportunity to reshape ourselves, physically and mentally, into whatever our self-actualized minds strive to be. By directing the evolution of technology and the human condition, by enhancing the best qualities of love and sex while eliminating negative aspects such as jealousy, grief and other ugly emotions from the dim and distant Darwinian past, we will be closer to taking our place among the Angels.