Brain Technology on Way

Article excerpt

The desire to alter behavior, emotions, cognitive abilities, and creativity shows up in the widespread popularity of alcohol and other recreational drugs, and in the willingness of students and their parents to invest in training to improve SAT scores, and in the popularity of "right-brain" training. The technologies for accomplishing these goals are not even seen as technology, since they are primitive and relatively ineffective.

Scientific developments over the past decade portend much more effective, reliable, safe, and benign technologies for altering the brain. Prozac has created wide enthusiasm. It's the closet ever to Aldous Huxley's Soma--a make-you-feel-good, make-you-perform-better pill. Prozac is just the opening wedge on families of new drugs achieving the same objectives.

Genetics, particularly the developments in molecular biology and the understanding of the human genome will for the first time give any species--us--direct control over its own evolution. Most visible to us will be the effects on body, brain and behavior. Genetic research is establishing beyond any reasonable doubt that mental abilities, mental disorders, and cognitive short-falls and deficiencies are genetically linked if not fully determined.

Psychologists have known for many years that there are numerous independent mental functions. Genetics will tease out the loci of those abilities at ever-more-refined degrees of graininess. Tools for looking at the brain include imaging tools for seeing the brain's structure and biochemistry, genetic and molecular probes, electrodes, and electromagnetic field detectors. We will be able to see the brain in real time, in action, and in three dimensions. The consequences of those linkages, of course, whether to abilities or to disorders, will stimulate research on mechanisms of interventions.

Truly Artificial Eyes

Different from the familiar pharmaceutical interventions, we are also witnessing physical interventions in some of the outer ends of the brain. Eyeglasses have been around so long, of course, that we rarely think of them as brain technology, but we are moving to the point where it is becoming plausible that people will have truly artificial eyes; that is, light sensors that will directly affect the brain. We are already witnessing the emergence of technology, however crude, of the ear the artificial cochlea.

Neurosurgery is better able than ever to identify sites of mental pathology and to intervene positively. We have known of the brain's pleasure center for decades. It is manipulable in rats. It has also been stimulated in people, although not yet converted into any practical application.

The earliest developments in brain technology will be directed, as they usually have been, at the relief of disorders. But the long-term avenues of development point to human enhancement. Our evolution, of course, will not be strictly or even predominantly by what we now call drugs. It will include acoustic, photonic, electronic, genetic, and other means of intervention, as well as improved modes of training in the technologies of meditation. …