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What’s normal? When it comes to the brain, it’s hard to say, and that’s why we need to study global neurodiversity

In a small vil­lage in India—a place so remote it has no elec­tric­i­ty, no telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem, and no cars or buses—a research work­er pre­pares to place an EEG head­set on a female villager’s head. The woman, who earns $3.75 a day labor­ing in a near­by rice pad­dy and who has nev­er ven­tured out­side her vil­lage, eyes the futur­is­tic device with trep­i­da­tion.

Is it going to hurt my head?” she asks.

Sathish, the research work­er, has heard this ques­tion before. In fact, he’s heard sev­er­al sim­i­lar queries from anx­ious vil­lagers who have got­ten scared when they saw the brain­wear.

Will it give me a headache?”

Is it going to give me an elec­tric shock?”

He assures the woman the head­set is pain­less and explains that all she has to do is sit qui­et­ly and allow her mind to wan­der. Sathish gen­tly adjusts an array of elec­trodes on the woman’s head and turns on the device that will read and record her brain­waves. Unsure what to expect, the vil­lager does as Sathish asked. She clos­es her eyes, sits in silence, and starts to day­dream.

This woman is just one of hun­dreds in close to fifty set­tle­ments in India who agreed to take part in a trail­blaz­ing research project. Launched by Tara Thi­a­gara­jan’s non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion Sapi­en Labs to study neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty among peo­ple from all walks of life in every cor­ner of the earth, this study includ­ed peo­ple in areas rang­ing from small remote vil­lages to urban hubs with incomes rang­ing from less than $1 a day to over $400 a day.

What’s nor­mal?

When it comes to the brain, it’s hard to say. Although the major phys­i­cal archi­tec­ture of the brain is some­thing we all have in com­mon, the way in which each indi­vid­ual brain is wired is deter­mined by each person’s life expe­ri­ences. The brain’s mys­te­ri­ous folds and tril­lions of con­nec­tions become as unique as each and every one of the 7.5 bil­lion indi­vid­u­als liv­ing on this plan­et.

For decades, how­ev­er, neu­ro­science research has tak­en a shock­ing­ly nar­row-mind­ed approach. Over 75 per­cent of human neu­ro­science research has been con­duct­ed in the U.S. and West­ern Europe, main­ly on uni­ver­si­ty-edu­cat­ed stu­dents. Study­ing brains on a mas­sive scale may help us, for exam­ple, under­stand why gen­der plays a role in the risk of devel­op­ing cer­tain brain-relat­ed dis­eases and psy­chi­atric con­di­tions. In boys, one of the hall­marks of ADHD is hyper­ac­tiv­i­ty and an inabil­i­ty to sit still. In girls, how­ev­er, this isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly so. Girls are more like­ly to exhib­it inat­ten­tive­ness or to cry more fre­quent­ly. When you con­sid­er that boys are diag­nosed with ADHD at near­ly three times the rate of girls, it begs the question—are some girls not being diag­nosed because physi­cians and par­ents are miss­ing the gen­der-based dif­fer­ences in symp­toms?

Although there has been a con­cert­ed effort with­in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty to include more women in clin­i­cal tri­als, the fact remains that researchers large­ly con­tin­ue to gath­er data from only a tiny pro­por­tion of the types of brains that exist. There is a dan­ger that by rely­ing on research that large­ly stud­ies the neu­rons, axons, den­drites, and synaps­es of just one nar­row band of the pop­u­la­tion, tech inno­va­tors may inad­ver­tent­ly build bias and inequal­i­ty into their devel­op­ment cycles, and ulti­mate­ly, their brain enhance­ment prod­ucts.

To mit­i­gate this risk, we need to under­stand the whole gamut of neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty. We need to study the brains of men, women, and chil­dren in Asia, Africa, and Latin Amer­i­ca. We need to study the brains of peo­ple in tiny vil­lages as well as urban envi­ron­ments. We need to explore the devel­op­ing brain and the aging brain. We need to look at the female brain across the hor­mon­al cycle. We need to study all of human­i­ty.

Tara Thi­a­gara­jan, the founder and chief sci­en­tist of Sapi­en Labs, is on a mis­sion to make it hap­pen, and I’ve been help­ing sup­ply EEG head­sets and soft­ware for the project as she lays the ground­work to open one hun­dred neu­ro­labs world­wide to study human brains on a broad scale. This rad­i­cal con­cept of study­ing brain­waves in peo­ple from the world’s tini­est rur­al vil­lages to urban set­tings is mak­ing waves of its own in the indus­try. At the inau­gur­al Brain­no­va­tions Pitch Con­test at the 2017 Sharp­Brains Vir­tu­al Sum­mit—think of it as a sort of “Shark Tank” for neu­rotech­nol­o­gy innovators—Sapien Labs took home the prize as the Top Brain­no­va­tion Har­ness­ing Big Data. This annu­al sum­mit is teem­ing with the most cut­ting-edge thinkers, experts, inno­va­tors, and investors in the brain health and per­for­mance space. The 2017 event alone attract­ed more than 250 pio­neers from twen­ty-three coun­tries. In fact, it was through one of these sum­mits where I was first intro­duced to Tara cour­tesy of Sharp­Brains CEO and edi­tor-in-chief Álvaro Fer­nán­dez, who also hap­pens to be a fel­low Young Glob­al Leader and a mem­ber of the WEF Coun­cil on the Future of Human Enhance­ment.

Tara is equal­ly com­fort­able at con­fer­ences in the world’s most sophis­ti­cat­ed cities or on her own in the mid­dle of nowhere in the far­thest reach­es of the globe. She’s one of those quant types, who tracks her calo­ries, water intake, sleep, exer­cise, and even her men­tal con­sump­tion (what she’s read­ing, time spent on the inter­net, and so on) and how all these things affect her pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, moods, focus, and meta­bol­ic sys­tem. Con­sid­er­ing she has an under­grad­u­ate degree in math—along with an MBA from the Kel­logg Grad­u­ate School of Man­age­ment at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty and a PhD in neu­ro­science from Stanford—it’s no won­der she likes to mea­sure things.

With head­sets in hand, Tara’s team fanned out to a cou­ple of vil­lages in India and per­formed ini­tial record­ings from about fifty peo­ple. Then they head­ed to the city to record the brain­waves of col­lege-edu­cat­ed, white-col­lar pro­fes­sion­als. When she saw the results, Tara was thun­der­struck. “Oh, my God,” she thought. “When we start­ed look­ing at the brain activ­i­ty, we saw that, fun­da­men­tal­ly, the two did not look like the same thing at all. The dis­tri­b­u­tions were bare­ly over­lap­ping and so dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent.”

For exam­ple, some fea­tures of the EEG var­ied up to 1000-fold across glob­al pop­u­la­tions, sug­gest­ing there is no “nor­mal brain.” The team found such an excep­tion­al­ly strong link between con­text and brain dynam­ics that Tara now firm­ly believes you can’t research the brain with­out tak­ing the liv­ing envi­ron­ment into con­sid­er­a­tion. “The brain is an expe­ri­ence-depen­dent organ. Your heart will be the same way from the time you’re born. Your lungs will breathe the same way from the time you’re born. But your brain will not. It doesn’t func­tion the same way when you’re born as it does when you’re an adult. It’s going to evolve based off the con­text you’re in and the stim­u­lus in the envi­ron­ment. And you can see that, absolute­ly stark­ly,” she says of the study results. Accord­ing to the stream of data pour­ing in, it became clear that the fun­da­men­tal com­plex­i­ty of brain activ­i­ty scales in rela­tion to access to ele­ments of mod­ern­iza­tion, edu­ca­tion lev­el, and a mea­sure Tara calls the geofootprint—the degree to which a per­son has trav­eled.

The sin­gle most shock­ing find­ing? A fea­ture that neu­ro­sci­en­tists have long con­sid­ered the arche­typ­al human brain rhythm—the alpha oscillation—is vir­tu­al­ly unde­tectable in remote vil­lagers. The alpha oscil­la­tion is also called Berger’s Wave, named after EEG pio­neer Hans Berg­er who first dis­cov­ered alpha waves back in the 1920s. Since his land­mark study was pub­lished in 1929, the alpha oscil­la­tion has been hailed as the dom­i­nant brain­wave pat­tern in humans and a reflec­tion of the most basic cog­ni­tive process­es. “In west­ern neu­ro­science stud­ies, when a per­son clos­es their eyes, you can see this rhythm. Every­body has it, and it’s very pro­nounced,” says Tara, whose find­ings very clear­ly showed the con­trary. If the foun­da­tion of what we con­sid­er nor­mal doesn’t exist or isn’t detectable in cer­tain pop­u­la­tions, what oth­er beliefs about the human brain don’t apply across all of human­i­ty? What oth­er aspects of the human brain are dif­fer­ent depend­ing on con­text?

– 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.

You can read anoth­er Neu­ro­Gen­er­a­tion book excerpt here:

And view Tara Thi­a­gara­jan’s Brain­no­va­tions pitch here:

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