REUTERS/ Morris MacMatzen
With a jolt of electricity, you might be able to enter a flow state that allows you to learn a new skill twice as fast, solve problems that have mystified you for hours, or even win a sharpshooting competition.
And this just scratches the surface in terms of what we might be able to do to improve cognition as our understanding of the brain improves. With an implanted chip, the possibilities might be close to limitless.
Researchers think that as we learn more about the brain, we'll be able to use electricity to boost focus, memory, learning, mathematical ability, and pattern recognition. Electric stimulation may also clear away depression and stave off cognitive decline. We'll eventually even implant computer chips that allow us to directly search the web for information or even download new skills — like Neo learning Kung-fu in The Matrix.
We're heading down a path that will allow us to supercharge the brain.
The key is decoding how the brain works. That's the hurdle in the way, and the one that billions of dollars in research are going towards right now.
"I don't think there's any doubt we'll eventually understand the brain," says Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University, and an editor of the upcoming book “The Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists.”
"The big question is how long it's going to take," he says.
Repairing And Enhancing
Most of the technologies that could enhance our ability to think play another important role too. They may provide the keys to stopping cognitive decline, treating mental illness, and even restoring sight to the blind or hearing to the deaf.
Some of these techniques are already being used in that way.
Stimulating the brain with electricity to treat ailments has a long history. The ancient Greeks and Romans, including Pliny the Elder, shocked themselves with the Atlantic torpedo ray to treat headaches. Treatments like transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) now show promise as a means of treating depression, epilepsy, and other drug-resistant brain disorders, according to Michael Weisend, a neuroscientist at Wright State Research Institution.
And neural implants show potentially far more possibilities. They already can transmit sound to the brain to provide a type of hearing for some deaf people. When connected to a tiny camera they can even capture shape and motion and transmit them to the brain, providing a type of vision for certain blind patients.
Knowing how these techniques are used medically shows what we understand about the brain now — but what's really fascinating is what this research will allow us to do in the future.
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A Jolt To The Outside Of The Head
First you strap a small device to your head, making sure that its electrodes are lined up in just the right way, and then flip a switch. A small jolt of electricity is delivered to your brain. All of a sudden, you feel a slight buzz that soon fades. Fogginess and anxiety clear away — you're suddenly able to solve puzzles that stumped you before, you can discern patterns out of noise, and your memory works significantly better.
According to neuroscientists and a large community of DIY brain hackers, that's not science fiction — its already the reality of TDCS. Many researchers still have questions about how effective brain stimulation will be in the long term, but there's a lot of promising research so far.
What this does is provide a fairly broad but small dose of electricity to the brain, affecting millions of cells, and enhancing performance along the way.
"TDCS is more of a shotgun approach than a scalpel approach," says Weisend. They try to target a region and make sure as much electricity reaches that region as possible, but a broad beam is sent out along the way. Luckily, most results so far have shown that in supervised lab conditions, these techniques are safe.
So far, this technique shows the most promise for improving memory, pattern recognition, and vigilance — the ability to pay attention — according to Weisend. His team has tested or demonstrated TDCS on more than 500 people, including Radiolab's Jad Abumrad, and among other things, they've shown that people learning a new skill can learn twice as much as people who receive the same training but no stimulation.
Other studies have shown that electrical stimulation can provide the same energy boost as giving someone a cup of coffee. Researchers have found that people who undergo brain zapping sessions can enhance their mathematical abilities for up to six months. The increased focus it provides can even give people a huge boost in U.S. military sniper training simulations. The military has also found that it can help pilots better pick out targets from radar images.
Promising results and cheap, easy-to-build devices have made battery-powered brain stimulators a favorite of the DIY community, especially for people interested in boosting their own brain power and for video gamers, who can use any boost in focus, vigilance, and the ability to see the next guy before he sees you.
These self-experimenters give neuroscientists like Weisend pause, however, as they may not be as careful as research teams and also can create unrealistic expectations for the technology.
"What we know is that changing the way a brain functions can make it perform better," says Weisend, but he also says that "the most interesting days for TDCS are definitely down the road" — when we better understand how it works.
A Chip In Your Skull
There are ways to have a much more direct impact on the brain than the broad one external electrical stimulation applies — if you are willing to put a sort of computer chip inside your skull.
Those same implants that are already used for vision and hearing could be used to enhance those senses far beyond normal as technology improves and as we better learn how to communicate that information to the brain.
But one of the first neural enhancements that we might see is one that improves memory, according to Marcus.
Already, the military is using research into neural implants and electrodes implanted into the brain to restore damaged memory in people with trauma. Marcus says we should eventually be able to build implants that extend memory and make it more reliable — people are trying to do it already. It's hard to say when we'll be able to do that — maybe not this decade, Marcus says, but perhaps the one after that.
First, we'll have to figure out how the brain codes away and stores memory.
That's the hurdle for a lot of this research, and it's hard to predict when we'll jump it. But governments and research institutions around the world have set modeling and understanding the brain as one of the top scientific priorities of our time.
Once we know how the brain changes as it stores information and implants a new skill, a brain implant could mimic that effect, making it possible to actually download the brain changes that would come with practice. A neuroscience and technological challenge like that may be far away — but we're talking about 50 year projects, not 500 year projects, says Marcus.
No matter what type of technique we talk about, experts agree that aren't quite there yet — though we're a lot closer than most people think.
With regard to TDCS, Weisend thinks it'll be incorporated into training programs (the military could save billions of dollars if they could cut training time short), treatment for drug resistant brain disease, and maybe in professional occupations that demand a lot of focus and where lives are on the line.
Marcus is excited about the possibilities of neural implants, but he also thinks that our perspective on all this will be transformed as we learn more about how the mind works. "I think that the techniques we have now are going to look really crude in 30 years," he says.
But it's going to happen. And the world is going to change with it.
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