Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cyborgs and Thinking Caps

A lot of things can go wrong in the neural system that can mess up our lives. Some of the obvious ones involve severing of the nerves that carry brain signals to our muscles. Biology is working hard to figure out how to repair such connections, but electronic technology has also found some work arounds. If you can collect the nerve signal above the cut, an electronic signal can be sent to the muscle, or to an electromechanical system that replaces the function of the muscle. Paralyzed rats and even people have been show to be able to control virtual joysticks and real movements with signals collected from deep in the brain.

Many video games of the first person shooter (FPS) type place a high premium on so called “twitch speed” – the time it takes to go from identifying a target to pulling the trigger. It seems that it takes several milli-seconds to go from deciding to fire for the signal to be processed by the motor cortex and delivered to the muscle. “Thinking caps” or arrays of electrodes attached to the head can intercept the brains processing take advantage of the million times faster speeds of electronics to shave precious milli-seconds off these times. Another type of thinking cap can help you learn to be a sniper or drone pilot in record time.

US military researchers have had great success using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)– in which they hook you up to what’s essentially a 9-volt battery and let the current flow through your brain. After a few years of lab testing, they’ve found that they can more than double the rate at which people learn a wide range of tasks such as object recognition, maths skills, and marksmanship. …

When the nice neuroscientists put the electrodes on me, the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut the fuck up.

The experiment I underwent was accelerated marksmanship training on a simulation the military uses. I spent a few hours learning how to shoot a modified M4 close-range assault rifle, first without tDCS and then with. Without it I was terrible, and when you’re terrible at something, all you can do is obsess about how terrible you are. And how much you want to stop doing the thing you are terrible at.

Then this happened:

The 20 minutes I spent hitting targets while electricity coursed through my brain were far from transcendent. I only remember feeling like I had just had an excellent cup of coffee, but without the caffeine jitters. I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. From there on, I just spent the time waiting for a problem to appear so that I could solve it.

It was only when they turned off the current that I grasped what had just happened. Relieved of the minefield of self-doubt that constitutes my basic personality, I was a hell of a shot. And I can’t tell you how stunning it was to suddenly understand just how much of a drag that inner cacophony is on my ability to navigate life and basic tasks.

No word yet on whether or not these will be authorized for the SAT, GRE, NBA free throws or your comprehensive exams, but there are a bunch of problems in Jackson and Peskin and Schroeder I mean to get back to as soon as I get mine.

Other new neural prostheses have learned to speak the language of the brain well enough to send identifiable imagery to the brains of the blind.

Perhaps the latest and greatest advance of this type has been the development of subsystems which can apparently replace some of the “thinking” and decision making functions of the brain. The one I need right now is the memory enhancement technology recently tested on rats.

If this stuff works out, it could be game over for Faux News and the Republicans.