About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
Follow me on Twitter at @neurorev
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July 31, 2003

Introducing Mind Wide Open

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Steven Johnson just posted his introduction to his forthcoming book, Mind Wide Open: Your Brain, Neuroscience, and The Search for The Self.  It's an awesomely fun read.

Comments (0) | Category: X-tra

July 30, 2003

To the victor, the paradoxes

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By Pat Kane

It would be easy to look at sports as a somewhat ethically-limited zone of play. It dominates our media spectacle, some might say, exactly because it provides us with an illusion of clarity and finality. Our tribe’s athletes beat your tribe’s athletes: in a fluid and confusing world, perhaps it’s no surprise that we flock to the games. (Though the Scottish columnist Joyce Macmillan holds out hope that the solidarities of sport can be used to better ends.)

But it’s amazing how fragile the legitimacy of sports can be. In an era where authority figures are regularly derided, sports fans touchingly expect their referees to be absolute paragons: any whiff of partisanship from the men in black, and the whole game unravels.

As for the athletes, the great fun of spectating any sport is our imputation of motive - reading the soul from the exertions of face and body. But even here, it’s so easy for our Olympian faith to be stretched to breaking point. What if those struggles aren’t just recognizably human ones, but almost literally post-human ones? We know we’re watching talented people: but can we cope with them also being biochemical experiments?

Mark Lawson in The Guardian, sifts elegantly through the contradictions of drugs and sport. What is the difference between performance-enhancing and performance-enabling drugs - the steroids that propel a runner slightly faster, the corticosteroids that stop a pro-footballers joints seizing up? We know that sport - from boxing to motor-racing - involves high levels of possible self-damage: we also know that sport is a striving to improve the natural, even under the purest conditions.

Lawson's vision is of an "Addams Family start-up line at the Olympics 100 metres" - all DNA-replacement and cyberlimbs. So do we object to that because it makes athletic prowess less about individual human striving (one we might still concievably empathise with, as we puff round our own running tracks), and more like some kind of collective cyborg arms race between nations? Or do we object because these athletes might be making the ultmate play-ethical decision: to start "playing God" with their own bodies?

As ever, the cultures of play have been rehearsing all the conundrums of the coming biological age on our behalf for years. The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas's recent book on bio-ethics, The Future of Human Nature, agrees with Francis Fukuyama - that what genetic or biochemical God-playing reveals is the religious core of our Enlightenment assumptions.

As the athletes mass on their fields of play, we still implicitly believe that they are "creatures of God" - their bodies and minds granted free will by a "Divine Creator" who, the monotheists at least assume, will not intervene in that autonomy. But to find that they are "creatures of the lab" brings us face to face with the fuzzy outline of our own, increasingly self-determined humanity.

So we should be vaguely grateful to those rule-stretching, muscle-injecting sportsmen and women, whose post-human play (perhaps ultra-human would be better) is outlining a possible future for us. In light of this future, I have a rather poignant nostalgia for the philosopher-athletes - those who manage to leave space for the conceptual, in the midst of physical regimes that are becoming ever more cybernetic and biotechnic.

Unfortunately defeated by Lennox Lewis in Los Angeles a month ago, heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko is both an intellectual as well as a physical contender - with a doctorate in physical science from the Ukraine, and a professorship in philosophy from Germany, where he now trains. The story of how he began his titanic dual career, told by his old tutor Professor Leonid Volkov, couldn't be more post-Soviet if it tried:

Vitali came up to me and said: 'Leonid Viktorovich, I am interested in one question -- being talented at sport, being good at sport -- what does it mean? Am I gifted or have I made myself talented?'" That was how he started his PhD. Working into the early hours during his trips to Ukraine, Vitali, Vladimir, a childhood friend and Volkov would analyse the data from experiments on national youth teams and argue about their conclusions. "We had to open all the windows and the balcony doors because with three strong men in my room having to breathe, there was almost no oxygen," Volkov laughs, sitting in his two-roomed flat on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
Volkov concludes: "I have always said to him: 'Don't let yourself get hit on the head, science needs you.'" A childhood hero of mine also revealed his social-theory side recently - the seventies Dutch soccer wizard Johan Cruyff. Now a major force in Dutch politics, the magazine Ode has unearthed an extraordinary 1984 interview. How much is there to learn from this disquisition on the relationship between individual play and team play:
You have this game with 22 players, all of them individuals, and yet they form two teams. Everything in this field of sport is contradictory. The 11 of you must operate as a hermetic group, while each player is constantly being judged on his individual performance. Eleven ways of thinking, 11 opinions, 11 personalities - how can they ever agree? And yet on the field a common goal must be set. Another complication is added: the problems that arise when things are not going well, appear in reverse when all is going smoothly. If there is a hitch, the guys, by being organised and not solely relying on their own insight, will give all it takes to get things back on track. If the game is progressing optimally, then these players will all want to stand out again anyway.

Cruyff's own solution? "I always went against the grain of all the accepted opinions. I dared to say to myself: 'Today is not important.' So I do not really have to go around that guy now and shoot the ball in the goal myself. If the organisation is sound, we will succeed - maybe not today, but tomorrow."

A better exposition of self-organisation as an ethic - see next week's blogger Steven Johnson for the book on that - couldn't be more naturally found. Cruyff's a genius - but he's also an iteration... For more background on the extraordinary fusion of philosophy and sports that created the Dutch soccer dream of the seventies and eighties, read David Winner's Brilliant Orange: the Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football. Winner cites this definition of the Dutch system here, and it's as play-ethical as you'd wish:

A good player is one who touches the ball only once and knows where to run.
All comments welcome.

Comments (0) | Category: Neuroethics

July 29, 2003

"Quirky, Flexible, Redundant": the Being and Becoming of Play

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By Pat Kane

In my investigations into the sources for a possible ""play ethic", I've found a schema from the Pennsylvanian educational psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith to be outstandingly productive. The blurb from his 1997 book, The Ambiguity of Play, sets out clearly his relevance to a neurosocial agenda:

Sutton-Smith focuses on play theories rooted in seven distinct "rhetorics"--the ancient discourses of Fate, Power, Communal Identity, and Frivolity and the modern discourses of Progress, the Imaginary, and the Self...This work reveals more distinctions and disjunctions than affinities, with one striking exception: however different their descriptions and interpretations of play, each rhetoric reveals a quirkiness, redundancy, and flexibility. In light of this, Sutton-Smith suggests that play might provide a model of the variability that allows for "natural" selection. As a form of mental feedback, play might nullify the rigidity that sets in after successful adaption, thus reinforcing animal and human variability.

I've discovered that the "seven rhetorics" are effective mapping tools for contemporary social complexity, in the affluent societies at least. Indeed, much of what we used to regard as productive "work" is now better understood within these rhetorics of play.

Certainly, the Modern discourses of play-as-progress (child education and nuturance), play-as-imagination (media, entertainment and interactivity), and play-as-selfhood (therapy, self-motivation, lifestyle mobility) capture much that we recognise in our everyday lives - as generally happy producers, consumers and pro-sumers. But it's the endurance of the darker, more Ancient discourses that fascinates me just as much - and which I think points to the deep location of play in our species-being, at the kind of adaptive level that Sutton-Smith refers to.

Play-as-power? Note the appearance of play and gaming metaphors in the average page of political and world reportage (it's a great exercise for a week's reading) . Play-as-communal identity? From Friends to football hooligans, Big Brother to Matrix heads, we are clearly playing our way to new notions of social cohesion, both positive and negative.

Play-as-sheer-subversion? Again, from Jackass and the Office (or Dilbert in the US) , to the goofy titles of computer viruses, the antic and satiric energies of play are always there to be tapped into, as a low-level form of resistance to the administered life. My favourite recent example of play-as-fate-and-chance comes from the pentitent mathematician John Allen Paulos, who describes his fall into "cognitive delusion" last year, as he chased his WorldCom stocks up and down the markets, with disastrous personal consequences.

As Gerda Smith notes, the risk player (whether a day-trader or a casino high-roller) is expressing a very ancient and transhistorical human belief: that the randomness of existence (our oldest angst) can be conquered. Paulos wryly recovers his mathematical rigour, and demonstrates through some simple proofs just how theological and spiritual this belief is.

Yet his fall proves, at the very least, that the "adaptive potentiation" (Sutton-Smith) of play - flexible, quirky and excessive - is no respecter of professional status. When we're "in play and at play", thank Proteus, the game is always on - and we can't always predict which form of play will emerge as our most effective mode of agency.

The question is: how do we become more capacious and tensile players, ready for this permanent openness and opportunity? What kind of mind could "live creatively" with the seven rhetorics, taking pleasure and productivity out of their affinities and disaffinities, ambiguities and paradoxes? Might well-fashioned "emoticeuticals" - built to enhance play's adaptive legacies in the brain - help us to get there? And now, we cut to a secret neuro-lab in Happy Valley...

All comments welcome.

Comments (0) | Category: Culture & the Brain

July 28, 2003

Play Ethics and Neurosociety

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By Pat Kane

[As promised, Pat Kane, author of the forthcoming book "The Play Ethic: Living Creatively in the New Century (MacMillan 2004),  is guest-blogging on Brain Waves this week as Zack Lynch begins the heavy lifting of writing a book of his own.]

It’s a delight to be in this space, as I’ve been an admirer of Zack’s diligent and intelligent blogging for a while now. But it’s perhaps best to start by explaining why a social commentator and musician/consultant/activist like myself, with at best a fan-boy enthusiasm for the Third Culture crossover between humanities and science - is interested in the issue of "neurosociety" (never mind neuro-sociology).

Zack's entry on the neurophysiology of laughter and humour was the main point of contact with my own interest, expressed in my website and forthcoming book The Play Ethic. The title started out as a kind of pun on Max Weber's notion of the Protestant Work Ethic, but has expanded into a multidisciplinary passion for understanding human play in all its forms, traditions and conditions.

One of the reasons I turn to cutting edge mind-science - and admittedly to its more dynamical and emergent than determinist models - is that I'm always trying to unsettle the reductive model of human nature and its capacities implied by the "work ethic", particularly as deployed by opportunist politicians and other neo-Puritan miserables. To be "at play and in play" is not only to have a mentality that is far more suited to a knowledge-intensive information economy: but it's also to deliberately embrace the essential abundance of human consciousness.

The "ethics" of play then become an answer to the old question stated in the 1968 edition of the Whole Earth Review: "We are gods, and we might as well get good at it." This is a world which is ever more constitutively "open" and up for grabs - whether in terms of what Zack calls the "nano-bio-info-cogno" realm of transformative technosciences, or the extreme fluidity of our globalised markets and cultures. Can we become "ethical players" of all these possibilities - rather than cynical manipulators of them, or defeated and angry victims?

So one reason for me to be interested in Zack's agenda is precisely in the area of the cognitive capacity and emotional evolution of the ethical player. (The wisdom contained in the "technologies of self" we often call spiritual traditions - see Francisco Varela and Erik Davis - is another agenda worth exploring). To cope with this carnival universe that we've made, is it enough - as the some evolutionary psychologists would tell you - to rely on the old hominid responses: that repetoire of savannah inheritances, tragic and comic, that have become a consoling pop-science myth for so many people?

Or can we begin to explore, as so much of Zack's linking does, the scary but exciting area of neurosocial innovation? Might carefully-calibrated drugs open new doors of perception, enabling players to participate in all the ramifying games and strategies of information societies, rather than recoil from its chaos and complexity? Certainly, in a society where play became a mainstream rather than a marginal practice, the inhibitions on pursuing cognitive and somatic enhancement would be much reduced, particularly in terms of research investment. (In one of my own specialist areas - music - the relationship between craft, technology, innovation, consciousness and, er, "neuroceuticals" (well, that's one word for them) has long been explored in practice: I hope to pick that up, among other themes, over the next few days).

Any comments and questions, I'd be very happy to receive them.

Comments (0) | Category: Neurosociety

July 24, 2003

The Neurotechnology Wave (2010-2060)

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Before I take a few weeks to focus on my book, I'm posting a paper I wrote that was recently accepted by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.  I, like James Canton's paper on human performance enhancement, wrote the piece as part of the NBIC conference which I blogged extensively.  It is a short two-page paper that sits at the core of my book and the Brain Waves blog.

The nascent neurotechnology wave (2010-2060) is being accelerated by the development of biochips and brain imaging technologies that make biological analysis inexpensive and pervasive.  Biochips that can perform the basic bio-analysis functions (genomic, proteomic, biosimulation, and microfluidics) at a low cost will transform biological analysis and production in a very similar fashion as the microprocessor did for data.  Nano-imaging techniques will also play a vital role in making the analysis of neuro-molecular level events possible.  When data from advanced biochips and brain imaging are combined they will accelerate the development of neurotechnology, the set of tools that can influence the human central nervous system, especially the brain.  Neurotechnology will be used for therapeutic ends and to enhance human emotional, cognitive and sensory system performance. (check out the rest in the PDF)

I'll be discussing the topic in more detail at the Bay Area Futurist Salon on August 15th.  Until then, enjoy the upcoming guest bloggers.

Comments (9) | Category: NeuroWave 2050

Passing the Goal Line in Style

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Posted by Zack Lynch

IPass, provider of Internet connectivity services, went public today at $14/share nine years after it's founding.  Massive congratulations to my brother Chris Lynch who was the first employee.  A veteran of several technology start ups myself, I know how critical the first hire is in setting the tone, energy and momentum for the company's first few years.  Apparently, Chris did his job well.  Also a Happy Birthday to Chris Moore today, IPass' founder.  I know what song they'll be playing a his birthday party tonight.....Prince's 1982 classic, 1999!

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July 23, 2003

Brain Waves Ethical Guest Bloggers (Part 2)

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Wrye Sententia and Richard Glen Boire, Directors of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics will be covering neuroethics the last two weeks of August.  Get ready to stretch your brain.

The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE) is a nonprofit law, policy, and public education institute working to advance and protect freedom of thought at a time when drugs and other cognitive technologies present both opportunities and challenges for individual and collective freedom.

The CCLE maintains that the fundamental right to liberty, privacy, and self-determination over one’s own intellect is essential to our most cherished freedoms. We work in the courts, with policy makers, industry, other organizations and people like you to advance legal, social, and ethical polices that protect cognitive freedom, dignity, and potential.

Cognitive liberty, the right of a person to liberty, autonomy and privacy over his or her own intellect is situated at the core of what it means to be a free person. This principle is what gives life to some of our most well-established and cherished human and constitutional rights. Today, as new drugs, technologies and techniques are being developed for augmenting, enhancing, or conversely, surveilling and controlling human thought, the CCLE produces original research and analysis, and engages in legal advocacy aimed at protecting cognitive liberty and the full potential of the human intellect.

Wrye will be speaking on September 19th at The Center for Bioethics and Culture (CBC) and the Council for Biotechnology Policy (CBP) in Oakland, CA. Her talk, "Steering Toward Human Flourishing" will one of several at the "The Face of the Future: Technosapiens?" conference.

See Brain Waves blogs: Cognitive Liberty and Responsibility and Stepping Forward: Transcendent Liberty for more about these two thought leaders.

Comments (0) | Category: Neuroethics

July 22, 2003

Brain Waves Guest Bloggers (Part 1)

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Posted by Zack Lynch

As mentioned yesterday, over the next six weeks several experts will be sharing their thoughts on Brain Waves.  Here is an overview of what the the first three will be covering:

July 28-Aug 1: The Future of Work is Play

  • Pat Kane, author of the forthcoming book, The Play Ethic: Living Creatively in the New Century (MacMillan 2004). "Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the last 300 years of industrial society - our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value."   See Brain Waves Post:  Harry Potter and the Rise of Kidults

Aug 4-8: Personal Experiences with Neurotechnology

Aug 11-15: Neuroeconomics, Trust and Neurosociology

More guest blogger introductions tomorrow.

Comments (0) | Category: Neuroethics

July 21, 2003

The Blog/Book Writing Paradox

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Like other authors, I have found it relatively difficult to write an interesting daily blog while simultaneously write a engaging, well researched book.

Why is it so hard to write a book and blog at the same time? Here are a few thoughts:

At a high level, blogs (definition of weblog):

  • Focus on current events, new findings
  • Short, pithy unedited arguments
  • Hyperlinked to other opinions, discussions and relevant information
  • Relatively un-related topics from day-to-day

Book writing, at least in my case, requires:

  • Extensive knowledge saturation (history, science, economics, politics, and futures research)
  • Extended, seamless argument development
  • Accumulated knowledge expression through verse not links
  • Extreme fact checking and editing

For these reasons, I'll be taking a six week break from blogging Brain Waves to focus on writing my forthcoming book, tentatively titled -- Brain Wave: Our Emerging Neurosociety. But instead of taking a "blog holiday" I decided to put together a group of exceptional guest bloggers to keep you informed, entertained and the Brain Waves momentum rolling.

The Brain Waves guest blogging network will include a week of blogging by the following individuals: Pat Kane, Steven Johnson, Paul Zak, Wrye Sententia and Richard Glen Boire, as well as a few others. More on each of them and the interesting topics they will cover tomorrow. (Thank you team!)

Comments (0) | Category: Writing & Blogging

July 18, 2003

Conferences Conferences

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Posted by Zack Lynch

With AO2003 behind me (see Ross and Chris for wrap ups), I'm off tonight to the World Future Society conference being held here in San Francisco.  Gregory Stock is giving a talk tonight on his book Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future.  I look forward to challenging him on a few of his timeline assumptions.  More on that tomorrow.

Comments (0) | Category: X-tra

July 17, 2003

At What Cost? Curtailing Compulsive Shopping Disorder

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Randall Parker highlights how Stanford researchers are narrowing in on a treatment for Obsessive Shopping Disorder (go read it!).  This is an interesting correlation these researchers have found but as I mentioned in Mind Styling, I, like Derek, am concerned about the unknown long-term health impacts of today's psychopharmaceuticals:

"No one knows the effects of taking an SSRI drug (like Prozac) for twenty-five years. They just haven't been around that long...And the long-term (even the short-term) effects of all the combinations that people are using? No clear idea yet, either. As someone who spent eight years doing CNS drug research, I can tell you that we're not going to be able to even make reasonable guesses. The brain's too complex (it's damn near too complex for CNS drug research to exist at all.)"

So my two cents is users beware and keep shopping at the Stanford Shopping Center.

Comments (0) | Category: Mental Health Issues


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Posted by Zack Lynch

Looks like the new Cisco router installed late yesterday is giving the "wifi oxygen" that was suffocating attendees yesterday.  Kudos to Tony Perkins and the AlwaysOn team for adapting so effectively.

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July 16, 2003

Virtual Beats Physical

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Unlike Richard who sees the humor in the AO2003 wifi issues, I became frustrated enough that I picked up my computer, jumped in the car and drove over to my dad's house a few miles away.  With wifi connectivity, I am now able to watch the real-time real video, blog and converse via the chat feature within the AlwaysOn wiki (oh and visit family :).  I'll drive back soon for the evening festivities. 

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Well, SomeTimesOn

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Posted by Zack Lynch

For a conference completely focused on AlwaysOn connections to the Internet and the changes it will create in user behavior (and revenue growth), the wi-fi connectivity here in the middle of the Silicon Valley this morning has been pretty spotty at best.  This is a good reality check for this insider crowd (AlwaysOn's tagline is "the insider's network"). 

Just got bumped off the network again while trying to post this.  If "wi-fi is like oxygen," as Sky Dayton just mentioned, then we are all suffocating.

Technical Note: To get to AO2003 wiki choose the low bandwidth connection option.

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On, AlwaysOn

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Today I'll be at AO2003 Innovation Summit at Stanford.  See a full webcast beginning at 8:45am PST.  More from there.

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July 15, 2003

Precision Neuroweapons

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Last time I wrote on neurowarfare it created quite a response from across the planet. To remind you, I write on neurowarfare to accelerate the conversation about their use and to highlight that like all technological advances, neurotechnology will also be twisted for the purposes of national defense and warfare.

Although this week's Science magazine does not come out and say it, a team of researchers have made a fundamental advance in neurowarfare technology by figuring out how to make non-lethal opiates.

Opiates are powerful painkillers, but they come with some baggage: a troubling tendency to depress breathing. By giving an experimental drug along with a narcotic, a team of researchers eliminated the opiate's potentially lethal side effect while preserving its ability to blunt pain. The result could have far-reaching clinical implications for anesthesia and the treatment of acute and chronic pain. (oh, and warfare)

Like morphine and other narcotics, a painkiller called fentanyl disrupts nerve cells deep in the brain that register pain as well as another subset that governs breathing rhythm. Well-controlled doses of the drug can work wonders, but overexposure can be disastrous: In October 2002, 129 people died in a Moscow theater when authorities subdued hostage-takers there by pumping what many believe was fentanyl into the building.

I wonder if the defense departments across the planet have assimilated what has happened here: the development of non-lethal sleeping agents.  Clearly, the Russians haven't been researching this area too deeply.  Who else hasn't?

Comments (0) | Category: Neuropolicy

July 14, 2003

Brain Waves Required for Consciousness?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Caltech neuroscientist Christof Koch is interviewed by The Scientist this week on his decade long discussion with Francis Crick about the nature of consciousness: 

Koch states that he and Crick have revised their earlier proposition that synchronous neuronal oscillations might be at the heart of consciousness. They originally believed that this theory might be the solution to the so-called binding problem: How do differently processed aspects of an object bind together into one percept--red + round + shiny = apple, for example. "Unfortunately, the evidence is slim for a direct relationship," Koch says. "What's much more plausible now is that synchronized firing activity in the 40-Hz range may be necessary to resolve competition (among separate neural circuits competing for conscious attention)... There's quite a bit of evidence that oscillations might be involved in biasing the selection, but once I'm fully conscious of [the percept], it's unclear whether [the oscillations are really needed.]"

As visual scientists, Koch and Crick are primarily defining consciousness as differences in visual attentiveness.  Although this reductionist approach may be moving the ball forward a bit, consciousness will remain an elusive concept for years to come.

Comments (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

July 11, 2003

Harry Potter and the Rise of Kidults

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Pat Kane, author of the forthcoming book The Play Ethic: Living Creatively in the New Century (MacMillan, 2004) has some interesting thoughts today on the future of parenthood:

The Potter books give us all a chance to examine what our relationship with childhood and our children actually is these days. The Play Ethic is interested in “kidult” media – whether Disney theme-parks, or cross-generational toys, or “Graystation” computer games – because they represent a zone within Western family life which is historically unprecedented: parents and children as conscious participants in self-definition, using games and stories and playful objects.

There’s a lot of anguished talk about the “kidult”, mostly on the side of those who have a vested interest in the restoration of a certain hyper-rationalist version of adult authority (which is usually part of a recoil from a whole range of other social and cultural complexities). For what it’s worth, I think it’s a promising field for change – particularly for men. Many might be willing to embrace a more “ludic” and playful identity – whether as singletons or as fathers - as a positive and creative option, rather than something second-best to work culture.

Looking forward, there is an interesting set of questions that revolve around how neuroceuticals will influence family relationships.  Will parents who use emoticeuticals to reduce anger and anxiety at work also choose to use these new tools to help them parent with more empathetically?  Could tools be developed that help stressed out parents/adults become more "kidult"?   Would these new tools be a positive force for change in family relations or might they represent the beginning of new perceptual facade that will compound family social problems?

Comments (0) | Category: Neurosociety

July 10, 2003

Neuroethics: How Bad Can be Good.

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Posted by Zack Lynch

William Saffire's NYTimes piece, The Risk that Failed, highlights the growing interest and importance of neuroethics:

"the field of philosophy that discusses the rights and wrongs of the treatment of, or enhancement of, the human brain."

"Not just neurosurgeons but other brain scientists are thinking long and hard about the morality (right or wrong) and the ethics (fair or unfair) of what such breakthroughs as genomics, molecular imaging and pharmaceuticals will make it possible for them to do.

In the treatment or cure of brain disease or disability, the public tends to support neuroscience's needs for closely controlled and informed experimentation. But in the enhancement of the brain's ability to learn or remember, or to be cheerful at home or attentive in school, many of the scientists are not so quick to embrace mood-manipulating drugs or a mindless race to enhance the mind."

Throughout our evolutionary history, emotions, like fear or anger, have been easily able to bump rational thoughts out of our awareness.  Non-emotional events, like a thought, have not easily been able to displace emotions from the mental spotlight—wishing that anxiety, pain or depression would go away usually doesn’t work.  While conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness.

Advancing neurotechnology has the potential to change this evolutionary fact. For the first time, neuroceuticals could allow our cognitive “thinking” self to a higher degree of control over our “emotional” self than ever before. 

Human emotions have been honed over millions of years by natural selection to be trigger-happy. Emotions like anger, anxiety and fear were highly selected for in our ancestors because they helped them survive in the harsh open savannahs of Africa.  However, in today's society many negative emotions no longer provide the selective value they once did.  Instead many emotions actually get in the way of cooperative efforts to solve problems.  Perhaps reducing some of our emotional responses and tendencies might help humanity organize more effectively and peacefully.

Clearly emotions like anger, anxiety and depression are useful evolutionarily mechanisms that alert us to the fact that something might be wrong and help us coordinate our responses. As appealing as it might sound to wipe out negative emotions, it would be as harmful as taking away someone’s ability to feel physical pain.  Without the physical feeling of pain we would walk across hot coals, burning our feet beyond recognition, without ever knowing it. However, as valuable as our ability to sense and react to physical pain is, there is no reason that a person in physical pain should not take an aspirin or a painkiller to modulate their pain.  Should the same follow suit with mental pain?

In other words, how much of a “bad” thing is good?  This is a critical question that neuroethicists will need to grapple with in the years to come.

Comments (0) | Category: Neuroethics

July 9, 2003

Recognizing Mental Health's Importance

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Retired CNN Chairman Tom Johnson openly discussed his battle with depression recently with an audience of mostly business executives and told them that companies should provide mental health insurance just as they do physical health insurance.

The importance of mental health should be obvious.  Mental health is the ultimate competitive weapon.  Mental health anchors the capacity of employees, managers and executives to think, be creative and be productive.  It's about time that corporations realized that mental health underpins their capacity to innovate and begin to act in their own best interest by supporting the treatment of their employee's mental health.

Comments (0) | Category: Mental Health Issues

July 8, 2003

Dividing Dyslexics for Their Own Good

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Using fMRI brain scanners, Yale scientists report in the NYTimes that two types of brain problems cause dyslexia. This new information should lead to more effective treatment for both types. The two types are divided into those whose dyslexia is, either:

  • Predominately genetic: these individuals had gaps in the neural circuitry that the normal readers used for the basic processing of sound and language, but had learned to enlist other parts of the brain to compensate for the difficulty. They still read slowly but can comprehend what they read.
  • Environmentally influenced: these individuals had their brain system for processing sound and language intact, but they seemed to rely more on memory than on the linguistic centers of the brain for understanding what they were reading. These students had remained persistently poor readers, scoring poorly on speed as well as comprehension.

As I've written previously, neurotechnology will continue to define mental disorders more accurately as we understand how the brain operates at increasingly refined scales. Dyslexia is just the latest example. What's next?

Comments (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

July 7, 2003

Sensoceutical Development

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Randall Parker blogs on an interesting development in our understanding of how pharmacological agents can inhibit and enhance human sensory system performance.  Citing the researchers:

"We are at the beginning of an era where we can interact with the brain. We can apply what we know about brain plasticity to train it to alter behavior. People are always trying to find ways to improve learning. What we tested is unconscious skill learning. How far could this carry to cognitive learning?…that remains to be seen," said Dinse.

Published in Science, the research showed that stimulation combined with methamphetamines could improve tactile sensitivity of people's fingertips.  It is research like this that focuses on the basic neuroscience of sensory system learning that will lead to sensoceutical breakthroughs in the coming years.

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July 6, 2003


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Posted by Zack Lynch

Why do I buy the Sunday New York Times......for the photography.  Other than National Geographic, few media compound life so concisely.   Is it Addictive? Yes.

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July 3, 2003

Express Yourself ;-)

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Sharing emotions in cyberspace is about to become a lot easier, and with this humans are taking one more step towards what Manuel Castells calls a world of real virtuality.

"Real virtuality is a system in which reality itself is entirely captured, fully immersed in virtual image setting, in the world of make believe, in which appearances are not just on the screen through which experience is communicated, but they become the experience."

The advance is covered by Steven Johnson in his new Discover article on the creation of There'emotion-supporting virtual chat environment

"As the psychologist Paul Ekman has shown, we are endowed with an extraordinarily nuanced set of facial expressions that convey our inner emotional states, along with even more nuanced perceptual skills for decoding those expressions."

"'s prototype version offers more than 100 different emotional states to choose from—everything from surprise to anger—and it plans to release 10 new emotions per quarter."

Insightfully, Johnson also warns of the downside of virtual emotions:

"We are exploring a comparable threshold point in our perceptual systems today—only this time, the illusion at stake is that of emotion."

As information technology continues to advance rapidly, it will be interesting to see the role that emerging neurotechnologies might play in the sharing of emotions within real virtuality.  Indeed, it looks like we are quickly moving towards DARPA's emotional future.

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July 2, 2003

Charting Your Neurome

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Posted by Zack Lynch

San Diego-based Neurome is racing to chart the brain's neural circuitry in the hope of creating breakthroughs treatments for mental illnesses.

"All this information about the function of the brain has to somehow be stored in a database that is standardized and can accurately depict the molecular, cellular and circuitry patterns of brain activity so that researchers can look at it and determine what's normal and what's not, section by section, circuit by circuit. And that is the function that Neurome intends to provide to drug discovery companies, said Dr. Floyd Bloom, Neurome's chairman and one of its founders.

Neurome scientists have improved the technology so that now it takes about 35 minutes to collect the volume of data it previously took about seven hours to record, Bloom said.

They are trying to measure and record how over time the disease affects the connection and communication, or electrical charges, between the neurons and cells in the brain." (more)

Backed up by an all-star team and $13m in funding, Neurome is initially focused on Alzheimer's disease.  Although I expect valuable results from their work, they will have to solve the animal mental health model problem at some point, as human neural circuitry doesn't correlate precisely with mice neural circuitry.

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July 1, 2003

NYC: The Mind Styling Capital

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Posted by Zack Lynch

If Venice Beach is the world's body sculpting capital and Thailand is the leading center for aesthetic plastic surgery then New York City is emerging as the world's center for mind styling.  Mind styling is the practice of using psychopharmaceuticals to enhance one's perspective. 

Partially driven by the trauma of September 11th, usage of psychopharmaceuticals by New Yorkers has surged relative to the rest of the US:

  • Anti-anxiety prescriptions increased 23% in NYC, compared with an 11% increase nationally
  • Sleeping pills useage jumped 26%, compared with 11% nationally
  • Anti-depressants surged 18%, compared with 3% nationally

The increased abundance of these drugs to treat mental illnesses has lead to broad experimentation for enhancement purposes.  This increase has also decreased the social stigma attached to these mood-improving (not to mention sex-life-improving) drugs.

As a recent New Yorker Magazine cover story describes, "When you relinquish the idea that your moods and weirdnesses are a constant, not to be messed with, any mental unpleasantness becomes fair game for treatment with a touch of this, a milligram of that."

But the creative usage of psychopharmaceuticals—the cocktail party as pill bazaar—is very problematic. These drugs are not designed for enhancement purposes and the side effects can be severe, if not deadly in some cases.

Clearly there is a desire for tools to enhance mental performance (cognition, emotions and sensations) but today it remains illegal to research, develop or market pharmaceuticals for any "non-medical" purpose.

As advances in brain imaging and biochips continue to expand our understanding of mental health, neurotechnology will make possible to develop neuroceuticals that can safely and effectively enhance human mental performance.  Until then, users beware.  

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