Towards an operating system for brain hacking

Electronic devices that interface directly with the brain are now being produced by labs around the world but each new device tends to work in a completely different way. An article in Technology Review argues that we need an agreed neural operating system so brain-machine interfaces can more easily work together.

Although current devices tend only to measure brain activity or stimulate cortical areas, it won’t be very long before devices typically do both – detecting and reacting to neural states – possibly forming a dynamic network of electronic devices that regulate brain activity.

To avoid the ‘Mac vs PC problem of the brain’, neuroscientist Ed Boyden highlights the importance of having devices that speak a common language to avoid both wasted scientific effort and potentially dangerous miscommunication.

Some examples of this kind of “brain coprocessor” technology are under active development, such as systems that perturb the epileptic brain when a seizure is electrically observed, and prosthetics for amputees that record nerves to control artificial limbs and stimulate nerves to provide sensory feedback. Looking down the line, such system architectures might be capable of very advanced functions–providing just-in-time information to the brain of a patient with dementia to augment cognition, or sculpting the risk-taking profile of an addiction patient in the presence of stimuli that prompt cravings.

Given the ever-increasing number of brain readout and control technologies available, a generalized brain coprocessor architecture could be enabled by defining common interfaces governing how component technologies talk to one another, as well as an “operating system” that defines how the overall system works as a unified whole–analogous to the way personal computers govern the interaction of their component hard drives, memories, processors, and displays.

Although not mentioned in the article, another advantage of a common platform for brain devices would be security, as current devices as often completely open and designed to be easily controllable from the outside.

Link to TechReview article on ‘Brain Coprocessors’.

Rare footage of physical treatments in psychiatry, 1957

I’ve just found a remarkable documentary on YouTube from a 1957 BBC series called ‘The Hurt Mind’. The programme attempts to de-stigmatise mental health for the public but also documents some of the most controversial treatments in the history of psychiatry.

The programme was an edition of a then pioneering five-part BBC series on mental health and this was the episode that specifically dealt with ‘physical treatments’ – that is, treatments which directly affect the brain, such as ECT, leucotomy, insulin coma therapy and abreaction.

This was before the days when pills were widely used in psychiatry – there were no antidepressants, antipsychotics or mood stabilisers and the only tranquilisers were heavyweight barbiturates, as benzodiazapines had yet to become available.

The psychiatrists on the programme are not named, but if I’m not mistaken, the main interviewee is William Sargant, who has a bit of sinister reputation for his enthusiasm for brain altering treatments, his interest in ‘brain washing’, and rumours he was funded by the CIA – as we’ve discussed previously.

Sargant literally wrote the book on physical treatments (titled An Introduction to Physical Methods of Treatment in Psychiatry) and the programme presents them in the most biased possible light, in line with Sargant’s enthusiasms, by dismissing side-effects and selectively presenting single cases of recovered happy patients.

For those more familiar with the frontal lobotomy – popularised by American surgeon Walter Freeman, which involved hammering an ice pick under the orbits of the eyes – you’ll notice that the British version of the operation, the leucotomy, was substantially different in its approach and involved drilling small holes in the skull.

The programme also depicts abreaction, where a patient with a post-traumatic condition is given a drug – often barbiturate, or, in this case, ether – and encouraged to talk about the difficult event.

The procedure was based on the Freudian notion that emotional pain can be repressed and can ‘build up’ and cause difficulties in other areas – although a drug can be used to help break down the defences and releases the emotion in a healthy catharsis.

I suspect that the Billy Bunter-like psychiatrist who discusses and demonstrates abreaction is Eliot Slater, although I have no idea of the identity of the bespectacled doctor who discusses leucotomy (do leave a comment if you know).

The programme is classic post-war BBC: chaps with posh accents talk to cor blimey guv’ner commoners, and there are plenty uncomfortable pauses and a shaky set. As a piece of history, though, it is fascinating.

It also turns out that BBC and the Maudsley Hospital attempted to see how effective the programme was in educating the public and published a brief article in the British Medical Journal which analysed the sorts of letters that got sent in by viewers.

Interestingly, William Sargant wrote to the publication saying that he was a medical adviser to the series and had “on rare occasions appeared anonymously on such programmes” and defended how even-handed it was.

Regardless of your interest in the characters, however, the video is a rare insight into how these treatments were actually carried out.

Parts one, two, three and four of ‘The Hurt Mind’ on physical treatments.
Link to details of the series from the British Film Institute.
Link to good Wikipedia page on William Sargant.

Sci vs Spy

The Cold War espionage styles of the US and Soviet spy agencies are compared in a fantastic article for the history of science journal Isis that notes that while the Americans tended to invest in technology, the Russians were more focused on ‘human intelligence’.

The article, by historian Kristie Macrakis, explores the technophilia of the CIA in contrast to the KGB’s emphasis on getting spies on the ground and how these contrasting styles played out in many (now infamous) incidents.

Soviet and East Bloc spies were better at their craft—recruiting and planting agents at key institutions, acquiring secret information, and especially developing the fine art of double agents. In fact, the East Bloc’s great success in using double agents turned into the CIA’s most appalling blunder. At the end of the Cold War, the CIA discovered that all of its East German and Cuban agents were, in fact, double agents working at the behest of East German or Cuban foreign intelligence.

As former CIA chief historian Benjamin B. Fischer writes, this rendered “the CIA deaf, dumb and blind” in East Germany. Further, “the East Germans, as well as the Soviets, ran circles around SE [the CIA’s Soviet‐Eastern European Division], neutralizing its operations and tying it up in knots with double agents who fed it disinformation.” The double agent fiasco occurred, in part, because of U.S. intelligence’s dependence on technological espionage and its lack of skill in human intelligence. In a sense, the East Bloc won the spy wars but lost the Cold War.


Link to full text of article.
Link to DOI entry.

The book of reality distortions

I’m happy to announce that I’ve just finalised an agreement with Penguin to write a book on what hallucinations tell us about the mind, brain and human nature. From the proposal:

The mind and brain can generate fantastical visions and disembodied voices, illusory people and shifting landscapes, internal symphonies and sensed presences. These states happen at the extremes of human experience, in madness, terror and brain disturbance, but they are often an exaggeration of our natural tendency to hallucinate that we rely on for everyday perception – a tendency that has inspired great works of art and shaped history.

We all hallucinate, and our perception relies on it. We have blind spots in our vision that our brain fills with hallucinated experience. Occasionally we experience intense and vivid hallucinations, after taking certain drugs, during mental illness, with epilepsy or brain injury, during hypnosis, after being taken hostage, during deep-sea dives, while blacking out at high Gs, or at other extremes of human experience that tax the body and mind. But it is not just these situations that trigger hallucinations: one in ten healthy adjusted people hallucinate more than patients in hospital with psychosis. In other words, hallucinations are part of human nature.

The book explores different types of hallucinations and their historical and cultural significance, and explains how they arise and what they tell us about normal psychology and neuroscience. This is the central theme of the book: that hallucinations are not just mental junk; rather, they are windows into the workings of the mind and brain that can reveal the essence of our inner lives.

It won’t be out until 2012, but I’ll make sure Mind Hacks readers get to preview the adventure as it gets written.

Also, if you know of any fascinating research or interesting types of hallucinations – please let me know by posting in the comments or getting in touch.

I’m always pleased to receive tip offs and, as well of doing plenty of scientific investigation, I’m also planning to visit many interesting people and places.

The pleasure is all mine

Monitor on Psychology has a brief but interesting interview with psychologist Paul Bloom who has just written a book on the counter-intuitive psychology of pleasure.

Pleasure, it would seem, is a byproduct of essentialism, Bloom says. The value we assign consumer products is largely based on something deeper than just the way they look or fit or feel. We consider their potentials as status symbols, their individual histories, how much we assume other people think they are worth and so on — and from these hidden properties, we derive pleasure…

What’s surprised you the most about your studies of pleasure?

My research started off looking at artwork and the case of everyday celebrity objects. I argued that your beliefs about how something came into being and who it was in contact with affects your experience of it. At some level, it’s not so surprising. If you ask people, “What would you rather have, a Chagall or a copy of a Chagall?” people say the original. But working out the details of why this is struck me as really interesting. What really surprised me was that even for pleasures that seem incredibly simple and primitive — like the taste of meat or sexual arousal — that these are also affected by essentialist beliefs.


Link to interview with Paul Bloom on pleasure.

Dreams of a consciousness measuring device

The New York Times has an excellent article about Giulio Tononi, one of the few neuroscientists trying to understand consciousness in a way that may have a direct practical application – to create a medical device that can tell whether you are conscious or not.

To be honest, I’ve been a bit bored with consciousness, not in an existential sense you understand, but in terms of the science which tends towards tinkering with interesting but possibly inconsequential effects.

The NYT article, however, is completely riveting, as it discusses Tononi’s quest to understand consciousness to the point of building a ‘consciousness meter’.

Although it may sounds fanciful, it could have an important medical application – to help anaesthetists determine when a patient is actually aware of what’s happening to them.

If you’re not familiar with surgery you’d think this was easy enough to determine except for the fact that muscle relaxant drugs are often administered.

This means that even if you’re awake, you can’t communicate the fact, occasionally leading to terrifying cases of people who are conscious but paralysed while operated on.

So ideally, anaesthetists would like a machine that gives a consciousness ‘read out’ from the brain. There is something called the bispectral index, which claims to measure depth of anesthesia, although it turns out not to be a very good guide to consciousness.

Of course, to create a device to measure consciousness, we need to understand its neuroscience, and Tononi has a unique theory he is working on:

Consciousness, Dr. Tononi says, is nothing more than integrated information. Information theorists measure the amount of information in a computer file or a cellphone call in bits, and Dr. Tononi argues that we could, in theory, measure consciousness in bits as well. When we are wide awake, our consciousness contains more bits than when we are asleep.

For the past decade, Dr. Tononi and his colleagues have been expanding traditional information theory in order to analyze integrated information. It is possible, they have shown, to calculate how much integrated information there is in a network. Dr. Tononi has dubbed this quantity phi, and he has studied it in simple networks made up of just a few interconnected parts. How the parts of a network are wired together has a big effect on phi. If a network is made up of isolated parts, phi is low, because the parts cannot share information…

Dr. Tononi argues that his Integrated Information Theory sidesteps a lot of the problems that previous models of consciousness have faced. It neatly explains, for example, why epileptic seizures cause unconsciousness. A seizure forces many neurons to turn on and off together. Their synchrony reduces the number of possible states the brain can be in, lowering its phi.

The NYT piece is a fantastic look into the ideas behind the theory and the exciting possibilities it presents.

Link to NYT on ‘Sizing Up Consciousness by Its Bits’.

It’s not a date, it’s an experiment in the lab of love

There’s a fantastic discussion on the science of dating over at Dr Petra that tackles how effective the techniques used by ‘scientific matching’ companies really are, and whether common dating advice is actually any good.

Petra recently ran a ‘Science of Pulling’ event at the British Science Festival (Americans: ‘pull’ is British slang meaning ‘to gently woo’) where she covered everything from how researchers actually go about studying couples to the myths of dating advice – in light of the extensive research on relationships.

What we have learned from social research on dating is helpful – not least because it often contradicts what single people are anxious about. Westerners can expect to spend 1/3 to 1/2 of their life single or looking for a relationship (see data from here and discussed more here). The average age for heterosexual marriage (in UK) is 34 for men and 29 for women (this report also highlights how many people are single for larger parts of their life than in the past). If you try internet dating you’ve a 1:10 chance of getting a date and going out with them more than once a month. You’re also equally likely to end up in a happy long term relationship regardless of whether it started as a one night stand or emerged through a period of dating.

The piece covers everything from pick-up-artists, to finding ‘the one’, to using science to improve your gentle wooing power.

Link to Dr Petra on ‘The Science of Pulling’.