My recent book on augmentation of brain function was published by Springer. I wrote the following preface to the book which may give an idea to interested readers as to its content. Unfortunately one of my co-editors, Dr. Ioan Opris, died before the book was published. Ioan was my dear friend and colleague. I considered him an artist of the neurosciences. In our co-published articles and chapters, Ioan’s colorful illustrations of complex neuroanatomical circuits always drew praise from the readers. I was honored in writing his obituary and will soon publish the same in corticalchauvinism.
Preface to Modern Approaches to Augmentation of Brain Function
William James Sidis was born in the United States on April Fool’s Day 1898 to Jewish emigrants from Ukraine. His father, Boris Sidis, was a prominent psychiatrist who founded the New York State Psychopathic Institute and the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Boris must have felt fortunate at escaping political prosecution and having been accepted by the Boston society upon coming to the United States; for Boris anything seemed to be possible. Along with his wife Sarah they were the prototypical power couple. Sarah, herself, went to Boston University and then graduated from its school of medicine. As they were expanding their social circle, Boris established friendship ties with the intelligentsia of his times. Indeed, William Sidis’ name came from Boris’ good friend, teacher and colleague, the famous American philosopher and psychologist William James. More a propos with our theme of brain augmentation, Boris became a controversial figure in psychology for his philosophy on education, believing that a proper nurturing environment promoted intellectual capacity. Heredity plays a role, but genius can be created! As its gel-like consistency could betray, the brain is a malleable organ and given the proper push there was a tacit assumption that it could unleash its full potential. William Sidis thus became a well publicized experiment for the views of his father. A child prodigy of exceptional mathematical and linguistic skills, William entered Harvard at age 11 and became conversant in 25 different languages. As an observer to the rearing experiment of this precocious child, William James told his audiences that we only use a fraction of our full potential. In this regard William Sidis thus became the rallying cry of a popular culture aimed at changing our minds and therefore our destinies. As John Campbell, science fiction writer and editor, once said, “no man in all history ever used even half of the thinking part of his brain” (Campbell, 1961). From there on, the self-help community believed we could do better than what we are born with.
Humans have a tendency to flatter themselves and assert their human uniqueness. We think of ourselves as fallen angels rather than risen apes. Indeed, we all agree that humans do possess many cognitive abilities not seen in other animals. As to an answer to the age old “question of all questions” concerning man’s place in nature, human are different from other primates by their larger brain in proportion to body size and a frontal cortex that imbues them with complex thought. This wonderful organ accounts for 3% of the total body weight but is responsible for 20% of the body’s energy usage. Given this fact, it was a curiosity for many scientists those reports by early electrophysiologists revealing areas of the brain that appeared to be “silent”, that is, not having a recognized function. Wilder Penfield (1891-1976) who expanded neurosurgical techniques and gave us the homunculus, could not define a function for a large expanse of the cerebral cortex. This lead to a misinterpretation regarding the shortcoming of early electrophysiological experiments in that we only use 10% of our brains.
Ten percent myth aside, humans use all of their brain all of the time. Contrary to a muscle that is active only during contraction, the brain is active day and night; even during sleep. Our frontal cortex, heavily involved in thought and judgement while we are awake, mediate normal sleep physiology as well as sleep-deprivation phenomena. However, similar to a muscle, the brain can be trained to improve its capabilities. Memory, attention, learning ability can all be trained; but the question remained for the past couple of decades as to whether they could be enhanced?
This book is dedicated to Dr. Jon Kaas who helped unravel the organization of the mammalian brain, described the workings of many areas of the cerebral cortex, and promoted the idea of neuroplasticity. It took somebody with the skills of a polymath of the neurosciences to mold our views of the sensory and motor brain systems and reveal how, from an evolutionary standpoint, their organization is altered during brain development. A heir to Socrates in asking all of the pertinent question, Jon Kaas opened the door that others would follow. Indeed, the field of brain augmentation now stands on the shoulders of a giant.
Many neuroscientists uphold a reductionist approach in that, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” (Crick, 1995). Jon Kaas and others have made possible an utopian dream wherein technological advancements will allow us to surpass some of the imitations of our biological brain. Outside intervention is finally upholding the tenet of the self-help community in that we can do better than we are born with. Static properties of the elementary parts of the brain are, in this regard, an end to manipulations engendering the emergence of unforeseen properties.
As we approach singularity it appears quite poignant that advances in the field of brain augmentation will provide for technologies whose application will provide irreversible changes in society (Kurzweil, 2005). Different chapters in this book publicize advances in the neural sciences by which we can enhance or mold sensory, motor, and cognitive functions, as well as mood and emotions. It may be that at some point in time we can all have an option as to brain augmentation modalities aimed at improving our quality of life. In the end, the brain is no longer a mystery upon itself, but a mystery as to how much we can achieve with it.
Campbell JW. Invaders from the Infinite. Wildside Press, 1961
Crick F. Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. Scribner, 1995.
Kurzweil R. The Singularity is Near: When Human Transcend Biology. The Viking Press, 2005.