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The NeuroGeneration and Humankind’s Quest to Enhance the Brain

Some peo­ple may be uneasy with the idea of “brain enhance­ment,” but the quest to boost our brain­pow­er is noth­ing new; it is an essen­tial part of human nature. Ever since Homo sapi­ens emerged near­ly 200,000 years ago, we have been search­ing for ways to upgrade the hard­ware and wet­ware in our heads, and we’ve been cre­at­ing and using tools to help us do it—physical and cog­ni­tive tools that help us solve prob­lems and com­plete tasks more effi­cient­ly, tools that extend our nat­ur­al abil­i­ties and allow us to do things that weren’t pos­si­ble before. Lan­guage, num­bers, sci­ence, education—these are all tools we’ve devel­oped to improve our men­tal capac­i­ties.

Our most pow­er­ful tool for nav­i­gat­ing the ever-chang­ing world, how­ev­er, is the brain itself. It took bil­lions of years for mod­ern humans to arrive on earth, and although we con­tin­ue to evolve genet­i­cal­ly, this process occurs at a painstak­ing­ly slow pace. Our brain is nature’s way of allow­ing us to adapt more quick­ly than we evolve. It’s the cog­ni­tive machin­ery that lets us cre­ate and cope with the mod­ern world.

This most vital asset is also the seat of the self and the cen­ter of our per­son­al uni­verse. Every­thing we see, hear, and smell is a prod­uct of our brain, which fil­ters the data gath­ered by our sens­es and con­verts it into the mod­el of real­i­ty we expe­ri­ence. And yet we still know sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle about the organ that is respon­si­ble for our human con­di­tion. Cour­tesy of recent advances in imag­ing tools, how­ev­er, we’ve begun to unlock some of the secrets of the human brain. And of every­thing we have learned so far, the thing I find most amaz­ing is that it is built to change. Our human brain is three pounds of pure poten­tial.

For cen­turies, most doc­tors and sci­en­tists believed that the brain was a fixed enti­ty. Longheld the­o­ries claimed that once you reached adult­hood, the neu­rons, synaps­es, grey mat­ter, and white mat­ter in your skull could not be changed. Correction—it could change, but only in one way: for the worse. Injury could dam­age your brain, and recov­ery was thought to be impos­si­ble. Old age could lead to the death of neu­rons, which could nev­er be replaced. If you had a men­tal health con­di­tion, you were stuck with it for the rest of your life.

For­tu­nate­ly, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary sci­ence of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty has debunked these notions. The med­ical and sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ties now under­stand that the brain is in a con­stant state of change, a dynam­ic enti­ty that has the abil­i­ty to rewire, repro­gram, and heal itself. The brain’s neu­rons, like trees in a rain­for­est, can sprout limbs that con­nect to oth­er neu­rons in new ways to alter the neur­al net­works inside our heads. Our brains change not only in response to the world around us, but are also con­stant­ly rewiring in response to how we use them. Activ­i­ties that are fre­quent­ly repeat­ed are rein­forced by the for­ma­tion of addi­tion­al neur­al path­ways to sup­port those activ­i­ties. Neur­al path­ways that are used often are strength­ened, but if a neu­ron isn’t “fired and wired”—used with­in the network—it can become weak­ened or even die off. This means that far from our brains con­trol­ling us, we can con­trol our brains. The trans­for­ma­tive dis­cov­ery that our thoughts, actions, and envi­ron­ment can impact how our brains are wired is what opened the door to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of using emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies to inten­tion­al­ly shape them.

Despite all that we have gleaned so far, sev­er­al things lim­it what we know about the enig­ma between our ears:

Dead brains don’t talk. Much of what we have learned about the brain comes from dis­sect­ing those of deceased peo­ple. Jacopo Annese, an expert neu­roanatomist at UCSD, has been dis­sect­ing and slic­ing brains since 1994. In 2009, about 400,000 peo­ple around the globe tuned in to watch Annese make 2,401 slices in the brain of famed amne­sia patient “H.M.” Although the slices pro­vid­ed a new look at neu­ronal archi­tec­ture, it was still dead tis­sue. It’s like look­ing at a flat map of a city. It depicts where the roads lead and where the build­ings are locat­ed, but it doesn’t reveal what the peo­ple are doing inside those build­ings, how they com­mu­ni­cate and work with each oth­er, or why they do what they do. That is the great mys­tery we are still try­ing to solve.

Pic­tures don’t tell the whole sto­ry. As humans, we are inher­ent­ly attract­ed to images. About 30 per­cent of the brain’s neu­rons are ded­i­cat­ed to vision, com­pared to just 8 per­cent for touch and a mere 3 per­cent for hear­ing. This helps explain why, in our quest to under­stand the brain, we have looked to pic­tures to tell the sto­ry. Per­haps the first brain imag­ing tool, the micro­scope was invent­ed in the 1590s, offer­ing a way to view brain tis­sue at high mag­ni­fi­ca­tion. Since then, brain imag­ing has come a long way with MRI, PET, CT, and SPECT, and mod­ern­day imag­ing tools such as func­tion­al MRI (fMRI) that attempt to map brain activ­i­ty now pro­vide clues as to where things hap­pen and when they hap­pen. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly tell us why they hap­pen. With­out the “why,” we can’t decode the dynam­ics of the brain’s behav­ior. And with a sys­tem like the brain, which is con­stant­ly evolv­ing, it’s the dynam­ics that hold the answers to many of the ques­tions we have.

No two brains are alike. The folds of the human cere­bral cor­tex are as indi­vid­ual as a fin­ger­print. This means that with 7.5 bil­lion peo­ple on earth, there are 7.5 bil­lion unique brains. The vast major­i­ty of brain research to date, how­ev­er, has focused on edu­cat­ed males from the West­ern world. Females remain under­rep­re­sent­ed in both human and ani­mal tri­als. A 2017 review in eNeu­ro revealed that brain tri­als using only male ani­mals out­paced female-only stud­ies at a rate of 6.7 to one. Exist­ing neu­ro­science research has also vir­tu­al­ly ignored peo­ple in areas such as Africa, South Amer­i­ca, and Asia.

As dra­mat­ic as the devel­op­ments of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry were, what is to come in this century—even in just the next few decades—will be still more astound­ing. Our under­stand­ing of our lim­i­ta­tions will be shat­tered as we explore the pos­si­bil­i­ties that arise when we bring minds, machines, and the mate­r­i­al world togeth­er. While this inte­gra­tion will take many forms, what is most excit­ing to me is the way in which it allows us to expand the vast poten­tial of the human brain. Thanks to more pow­er­ful tools, we are on the brink of unrav­el­ing the brain’s secrets—and using them to our advan­tage.

In the Neu­ro­Gen­er­a­tion, we will have a much more inti­mate rela­tion­ship with our neu­rons and synaps­es, under­stand­ing how they work and inten­tion­al­ly direct­ing their activ­i­ty to improve atten­tion, cre­ativ­i­ty, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and more. Enhanc­ing and aug­ment­ing our brain­pow­er in these ways will rev­o­lu­tion­ize the way we learn, the way we do busi­ness, and the way we heal dis­ease.

– This is an adapt­ed excerpt from the new book The Neu­ro­Gen­er­a­tion: The New Era in Brain Enhance­ment That Is Rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the Way We Think, Work, and Heal (Ben­Bel­la Books, 2020) by neu­rotech pio­neer Tan Le. An inven­tor, explor­er, and entre­pre­neur, Tan is the founder and CEO of EMOTIV, a San Fran­cis­co-head­quar­tered neu­roin­for­mat­ics com­pa­ny on a mis­sion to improve under­stand­ing of the human brain and to devel­op a plat­form for research and inno­va­tion.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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