Friday, December 13, 2013

Superhuman: Building a Better Brain.

Dwayne Reed. (Wiki.)

by Louis Shalako

Neuro-enhancement or ‘building a better brain’ has been around for some time.

Research is ongoing, and like much of high-tech R & D, it’s geared to marketable products, as well as military and more purely medical applications.

Just as the Apollo Program gave us microwave ovens and dehydrated juice crystals, there will be mainstream spin-offs from top-secret military research.

In a soldier, the obvious goal is to give someone a better brain and a better gun, making them more efficient killing machines on the battlefield and more easily managed in times of non-conflict. I use that term because the world has never been, not even for one moment, entirely at peace and probably never will be.*

One of the great ethical dilemmas of neuro-enhancement, is that it will always be first and foremost military, and it will always be a privileged elite who has first access to it.

I would like to break that lock.

If you are willing to spend billions or trillions of dollars to make a smarter soldier, or if every politician with ambition is desperately trying to make himself smarter and his followers more obedient and yet more capable, how come this technology can’t be used to uplift the common man?

If professional athletes, financiers, industrialists can use it simply to make more money, what about poor people?

If the human race was a bit smarter, would we be able to avoid situations of conflict, or would we just be making things worse in that the more exploitive, the more inventive of society will just find new ways to grab for that symbolic brass ring?

Could we even do that impartially, and in an ethical manner, still respecting the right of self-determination, not just for peoples but individuals?

What if representatives of the state came to a clearly impoverished group, and told them, ‘We want to help your children better integrate into society? With important social and economic benefits?”

Isn’t that a little patronizing? And at the same time, it promises much. In a society that only needs or can tolerate so many millionaires, and there are only so many exciting and interesting and high-paying jobs to go around, where is the need? The real need, in the opinion of some, is a docile, unskilled population available to exploit for commercial and political purposes.

How come kids born into extreme poverty can’t be enhanced in some way to help them get a good education? What if it would help them to avoid  unfortunate behaviours that disrupt their education and their early employment years when work and life habits are being formed?

There would be more than one side on that debate, and probably more than two sides.


Apparently hooking a nine-volt battery up to your head can enhance performance while playing video games.

Pardon my little joke, but that one seems like a no-brainer.

Your brain runs on electrical impulses, and a little more juice in the system just helps to overcome the natural resistance of the circuit, in simple electronic terms. Our bodies have electrolytes. Sports drinks can often help to balance electrolytes. It’s in their advertising.. Sport at the higher levels involves certain types of brain activity as well as physical prowess.

One might think that upping the electrolytic values at the same time as the current might enhance brain activity even more, especially if it’s high-paced activity demanding a lot of quick decisions and mental flexibility. A person in the same experiment being asked to sit on a hard chair and stare at a blank wall might have more trouble ‘focusing’ whereas the person playing war games might find they need all the help they can get—even if they’re ‘just sitting in a chair’ as well.

Going back to the electrolytes, athletes and professional sportsmen can benefit from neuro-enhancement. 

Neuro-enhancement can help in precision locomotor training. It can help an athlete throw a javelin more precisely. It can help a boxer have better control over his punches. It can help a quarterback quickly and accurately read a field and then make the perfectly-controlled throw and put it just where it needs to be, because his throwing arm is hooked up in a constant feedback loop between muscle and brain, eyes and ears.

There is a famous story of a pilot, Major James Nesmeth, who spent seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. Much of that was in solitary confinement, surely one of the least stimulating environments a person can experience.  (That’s why it is an ‘enhanced form of punishment,’ over and above simple incarceration.)

He kept his sanity by playing golf in his head. He played a course he remembered well. He played eighteen holes twice a day, and after a time, he was even varying the wind and the weather, trying out different clubs on different shots…the whole schlemiel.

It was a process of visualization, and when he was released, they say he was a pretty good golfer. He was much-improved by all that practice play in his head.

He was better than he was before. It also helped him to survive seven years in a prison camp.

With a little neuro-enhancement, it’s possible the results might have been even greater. At the time he was under great stress and suffered from poor nourishment and minimal health care, with minimal recreation facilities.

Security forces might become ‘smarter,’ but then some of those security forces belong to rogue nations and groups with agendas of their own. Won’t the terrorists just get smarter too?

“When the smart pills start to look like dead flies, you’re halfway to a cure.” – old joke.

‘Smart pills’ – stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall - are now old tech. Non-invasive brain stimulation techniques, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that uses the principles of electromagnetic induction to focus currents in the brain, are now commercially available for non-medical improvement (such as memory and cognition boosting). Brain stimulation devices are most commonly used in treatment for various neurological and behavioral conditions, but the same technology can be used to enhance the human brain beyond its natural abilities. So far, research shows these techniques to be low-risk. A company called is currently selling a trans-cranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) headset designed “to increase the plasticity of your brain,” making “synapses fire faster” so customers can improve their gaming skills.Neuro-stimulation can be used to boost motor function, improve memory, and even modify behavior. But should it? And at what point do we cross the line? Do we have a responsibility to be the best humans we can be? – Reilly Center, Notre Dame University.


How would you feel if one school in your district announced that there was an experimental program of neuro-enhancement and yet that was only one out of twenty elementary schools in the district.

What if that was a school in the more affluent part of town and you weren’t all that well-off?

Wouldn’t you resent it? What about your kids? You’ve struggled along with a high-school education, earning in the lower end of the spectrum and your biggest dream is for your kids to escape the cycle of poverty and get a really good education and get out? Just get out?

It wouldn’t seem very fair, would it?

Yet at the same time, if the program was in your school, those other parents would scream, and some of it would be pretty ugly—in their eyes, poverty breeds crime and your kids are just destined to go to jail anyways, so why waste the money on them? It’s better spent elsewhere in their opinion.

A program like that is still some ways off. There are other, non-invasive, non-chemical, non-electrical or magnetic brain enhancement techniques.

One involves shutting off the TV and reading a book! Another no-brainer, ladies and gentlemen.

But the books you choose for your kids make a difference as well. While fiction can expand the imagination, a rather intangible thing and hard to define, non-fiction such as history or even good-old how-to books, say ‘Personal Finance for Dummies’ could make a big difference in their lives a few years down the road.

I think we’ve all seen advertisements for memory enhancing games, drugs, apothecary substances.

Another thing that’s good for your brain: oxygen. Sounds simple, but it’s true.

Bearing in mind the electro-chemical nature of the brain, everything in there is a chemical reaction—that reaction runs on oxygen.

It’s a kind of internal combustion.


Change your Brain. Dr. Gregory Amen. If you’ve seen him on PBS, then you know all about his work.

A really interesting guy, and well worth a listen.

Working Memory Training. (Wiki.) Check out people’s claims, talk to someone else who has been through a program. You don’t have to sign yourself or your kid up to the first one that comes along.

Think and Grow Rich. Napoleon Hill. The obvious thought when we see a rich guy is that he must be smarter than us, and in some ways he is. His knowledge, an important part of brain power, is specialized to a given task, such as making money.

Analytical thinking. Understand cause-and-effect relationships. This holds true in our personal lives just as much as it does in math, or physics, or chemistry.

For a writer, cause and effect is the basis of plotting a story. If Party A does this, how does it affect Party B? 

What does Party B do in consequence, and how does this affect what Party A does next, or how does this advance the goals of Party A?


* There are several wars going on right now in the world, and there are always tensions.
Presently China and South Korea are mutually bristling over a ‘strategic reef’ in international waters—or what would be international waters if one can get their ‘rightful claim’ recognized by all parties.

Any rock sticking up from the ocean floor, if it can be successfully claimed by a state or power, immediately confers sovereignty, and it commands a 200-mile economic zone, in a radius around aforesaid rock or reef.

The benefits to a successful claimant are obvious in an increasingly resource-starved world. This includes minerals, oil and gas under the surface, fishing rights, and the right to enforce all the laws and strictures of the sovereign nation.

Simply put, there is money, power and prestige involved. The average person in the street in either country probably doesn’t give a tinker’s damn for some rock in the ocean, but they do care about their own family, their job, and their economic status. The media can be used to whip up public opinion, and no doubt this is a contentious issue for both parties.


Reading both requires and enhances analytical thinking, and writing even more so. In a few short years my own thinking has become much more lucid, much clearer, and yet first thing in the morning--when the old electrolytes are low--it's like I can't even remember my password. 

Even my vision is blurry in the morning.

It seems to clear up after a while and I really get going.

(If you're so smart, how come you ain't rich? -- ed.)

That, is a very good question!


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