Brain Analytics, Biohacking, and the Quest for Optimal Mental Performance


(Image: Carlos Amarillo/Shutterstock)

(Image: Carlos Amarillo/Shutterstock)

Brain mapping and data analytics advancements are improving our understanding of the brain's functioning and opening it up as the new frontier for biohacking.

The human brain is one of the most complex organs in the body, in part because it holds the mind which is as abstract as it is essential to human life. Both mental well-being and the anatomical health of the brain have been studied for many centuries now, with the more modern studies happening mostly in clinical contexts towards finding cures for illnesses.

However, the availability of cheaper, less intrusive, and enhanced brain mapping methods today are enabling improved analytics towards better understanding of the brain's functioning. High resolution imaging of the brain such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) and brain signal measurement with electroencephalography (EEG) are but a few of these methods. Each of these methods can avail large sets of data from the brain to be analyzed. The EEG in particular has a very high temporal resolution, allowing for very large samples of data to be collected per second. The successes in brain imaging and measurement, enabled brain computer interaction(BCI) research, aimed at making the most out of neurofeedback data and initially intended as a way for locked-in patients to communicate.

Brain data collection and processing successes have also enabled various attempts at improving human efficiency and even the capabilities of the human brain. Today there is considerable focus on various neurotechnologies. Facebook recently launched a project towards developing a brain-to-computer typing interface that would be used to type without keyboard use by processing the thoughts that an individual wants to type in. This would not only further enable locked-in patients in carrying out computer-mediated tasks but also speed up input for all users.

Cognitive enhancement as a theme has also gained traction in the gaming industry which now produces many games aimed at providing cognitive training. The effectiveness of gaming in cognitive enhancement has been analyzed via cognition tests as well as imaging using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to observe the level of activation in different brain regions. However, despite various studies there has been no consensus on the effectiveness of these games for this purpose. A more dramatic cognitive enhancement example is transcranial magnetic stimulation(TMS) of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex(DLPFC)[non-free journal paper] which involves magnetic stimulation of the brain during mental tasks to expand the brain's capacity in memory and processing. Effects of TMI have also been analyzed via fMRI scans and although some authors report promising results, the studies are all still early. Looking to the future is another interesting development in data driven brain enhancement research; Tesla founder Elon Musk's recently announced a new venture towards augmenting the brain with artificial intelligence to enhance efficiency of input and output.

Aside from these industry efforts in the brain optimization, it is interesting to note the proliferation of DIY brain biology and brain analytics. A visit to Reddit's nootropics subreddit reveals that there are thousands of people visiting in search for solutions to improve the quality of their lives by enhancing cognition, mood, memory, energy, and focus to do daily tasks better. Nootriment lists more than 120 different types of brain supplements and nootropics, each with different advantages and side effects. A follow-up around the internet shows that brain supplementation is indeed a subject attracting more people every day.

Although many nootropics are substances not well tested for the purpose, many users are putting out their own experiences via Reddit discussions and on other forums, thus contributing to a growing body of anecdotal data. Users try to quantify the improvements gained by comparing results in standardized tests and other psychological puzzles taken periodically during supplementation, cognitive enhancement games and other neurotechnology.

It is evident then that history is at a point where brain performance as well as brain computer interaction are very important subjects both to corporations from a business perspective and to individuals hoping to improve quality of life. Hence it makes for a very important niche for analytics tools to be paired with home-use brain mapping equipment such as versions of EEG. As an example, it would be great to know exactly how many cups of coffee pick your brain's alpha wave to just the right frequency by simply slipping on an EEG cap and looking at data. This would be much like what is already mainstream in physical activity self-trackers, home-use heart rate monitors and other tools that help consumers manage their own body health.

Nancy Mogire, IT & Systems Security Researcher

Nancy Mogire, a Kenyan, is a researcher in IT and systems security. She is a graduate student in information systems at Strathmore University, where she is working on a project with IT faculty to establish a curriculum for training in mobile applications and interactive mobile and Web technologies. She has been in the information field for about four years, previously focused on Web design and Web content production. Mogire is an avid reader of technology publications and blogs. When not doing any of the above, she finds time to play a game of chess or watch a TV series, usually legal, investigative, or political drama, and often with a twist of high-level technology.

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Re: Into the new cerebral frontier
  • 7/11/2017 10:49:50 PM
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Agreed -- I think we all wonder about such things. It's scary to think too much about it, however.

Re: Into the new cerebral frontier
  • 7/10/2017 5:39:52 PM
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One has to wonder just what may be going on in secret labs funded by the military, or even commercial concerns, trying to ultimately manipulate human brains to act according to outside instructions and motives, for both good intentions and nefarious ones as well. 

Re: Into the new cerebral frontier
  • 7/1/2017 11:53:08 AM
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..

Broadway asks

Lyndon, how about Gloz? Is he a bad robot or good? Does the novel start taking a spiritual slant with the definiton of "mind"? Or is Gloz blowing smoke because he really is spying on their minds all the tine?

In my novel, Gloz's primary mission is to ensure the safety of the group of human children in his care, so you can draw your own conclusions. However, circumstances can always change ...

In a novel for kids, which would hopefully find its way onto public school library shelves, my instinct is to be very cautious about anything "spiritual" and to avoid issues of religion, sex, or politics. There is a bit of politics in the story, but it mainly involves the alien civilization, their internal problems, and their attitude toward human civilization on Earth, so I'm probably OK there. The story does dip briefly into philosophical issues, like "whether we exist in a dream or reality ..."

Anyway, I'm having fun creating my vision of Gloz, and how an advanced, sentient robot created by an alien civilization might function. 

..

Re: Into the new cerebral frontier
  • 6/29/2017 10:55:10 PM
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Lyndon, how about Gloz? Is he a bad robot or good? Does the novel start taking a spiritual slant with the definiton of "mind"? Or is Gloz blowing smoke because he really is spying on their minds all the tine?

Re: Into the new cerebral frontier
  • 6/29/2017 11:05:54 AM
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Broadway, your comment brings to mind the recent case of a girl that talked her boyfriend into commiting suicide. Mind control or taught manipulation can be serious business with far reaching concequences.

Re: Into the new cerebral frontier
  • 6/29/2017 10:59:45 AM
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@kq4ym, the potential for misuses of such powerful tools is concerning. We have seen that not everyone confine their use of technology with honorable intentions. No way to suppress advancement but the potential for major damage screams for regulatory intervention.

Re: Into the new cerebral frontier
  • 6/29/2017 9:53:26 AM
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While there's certainly a lot of research and public interest now in "brain technology" and as noted " there are thousands of people visiting in search for solutions to improve the quality of their lives by enhancing cognition, mood, memory, energy, and focus to do daily tasks better," I'm a bit skeptical that there's going to be a simple method to put that research into practical use. It's of course interesting for us to probe the brain with technology available and see what does what, it may not be so easy anytime soon to make it voluntarily act on our wishes for "self-improvement" and "enlightenment" I would venture to guess.

Re: Into the new cerebral frontier
  • 6/29/2017 9:01:03 AM
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..

Broadway writes

Lyndon, do share. You can't bring up your novel without doing so. At least the chapter where the robots scan your protagonist's brain. A lot of my interest and naivete around these topics comes to me because of my childhood fascination with Arnold movies. In this case, the classic scene from Total Recall comes to mind, when he has to remove the chip in his skull through his nose.

I haven't seen Total Recall but now I'm intrigued so will have to look for it. 

My novel's still a "work in progress", but, for what it's worth, I can give a small peek relevant to this discussion about "brain hacking". The intended audience is somewhat precocious kids in the 10-15 age range.

Background: Main character is Xeva, an 11-year-old 8th-grader, who together with 4 other kids has been persuaded by Gloz, a robot (who has taken human form), to travel in a starship to his faraway alien civilization (over a thousand years more advanced than humanity). She has just awakened and is speaking to Gloz. 

"So you can tell what dream phase we're in?"

"Yes ... our technology has enabled us to do that for some time ..."

"You really see what we're dreaming?"

"Yes ..."

"How ...?"

"I can focus meta-dimensional particle energy pulses on your neural energy patterns ... These patterns can be translated into visual images and other data ... These patterns are particularly strong during your interaction with the other reality across the breach in the dimensional membrane ..."

Xeva only barely comprehended what Gloz was telling her: Focusing "meta-dimensional particle energy pulses" on her "neural energy patterns"? Patterns that were extra-strong during her "interaction with the other reality across the breach in the dimensional membrane"? It all sounded really strange ...

It was weird enough to think that her mind, just in a dream while she was asleep, would somehow keep getting involved with a powerful and dangerous "breach" in the universe – causing some kind of powerful disruption that beings incredibly far away were able to detect ... But now here was Gloz telling her he was able to focus "energy pulses" on her brain that could be "translated" so a robot like him could actually see what she was dreaming! The thought gave Xeva a shiver ... but at the same time, it was a little comforting to realize that, if she was actually facing some kind of real danger in her dream life, Gloz was able to watch over her and intervene if necessary.

She looked up at Gloz. "So, you're sort of, like, monitoring all of us, all the time?"

"It is necessary to monitor these extraordinary dreams ..."

Xeva thought about this for several moments. Then, "What about our minds?" she asked. "Are you monitoring our minds too? Like, what we're thinking?"

"Xeva ... the simple answer is No. I am not monitoring your mind, your consciousness." After a brief pause, Gloz continued: "Our technology does have the capability to interpret images, sounds, words – the elements of what you consider thought – from your brain activity. But what you refer to as the 'mind' or 'consciousness' ... of any biological sentient being ... is much more complex ..."

..

Re: Into the new cerebral frontier
  • 6/28/2017 11:26:14 PM
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There are probably experiments done in non-laboratory settings --- like by some nations' secret services --- where they're getting the "labrats" to do more than just twitch their hands. That's the paranoia in me talking, but we're probably pretty close to full-on Voldemort level control of other people's actions.

Re: Into the new cerebral frontier
  • 6/28/2017 7:22:56 PM
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@rBaz, - Just to clarify about 'invasive vs non-invasive' i refer to the methods that involve piercing e.g. with needles vs the ones that don't involve anything being inserted into the skull. As far as dignity itself goes, it might depend on the details i suppose. For the most part since one can't actually read thoughts with the tools it is probably ok for now. However there are some applications like for example a case where EEG was used to measure "how deeply in love people were". Still quite pseudoscientific to some extent but revealing enough and potentially embarassing to couples who may feel outed. Then also the experiment setup methods can be quite clinical which could be uncomfortable to some participants.

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