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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.

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The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Friday, April 07, 2006

A Wrinkle in the Science Found in Wrinkles in the Brain

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The Washington Post reports a study suggesting the brains of highly intelligent children develop in ways distinctively different from those of ordinary children. The article notes:

The study is the first to try to measure whether differences in brain development are linked to intelligence, said researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health, who did several brain scans on 309 healthy children between the ages of 6 and 19.

The scans showed that children with the highest IQs began with a relatively thin cortex -- the folded outer layer of the brain that is involved in complex thinking -- which rapidly grew thicker before reaching a peak and then rapidly becoming thinner, said Philip Shaw, the lead investigator. Children of average intelligence had a thicker cortex around age 6, but by around 13 it was thinner than in children of superior intelligence.

A graphic actually notes the variations in thickness between the two groups converging around 19 years of age. Still, as the article also mentions, finding clear physical differences in brains that correlate to significant differences in intelligence has long been a critical goal of neurophysiology. Everything we can identify about the discernable causes or even the effects of heightened intelligence will enable us not only to measure such characteristics more accurately, but it will also give us an idea of how to increase it further -- through genetic engineering, conventional education, pharmaceuticals (nootropics), accelerated learning, etc. After all, if you have a number of benchmarks indicating relative intelligence in a subject, then one measure of an experiment's success is in seeing how they change. Of course, there are others, such as the mental health of the patient, but having a basic, verifiable scale is extremely useful for radical enhancement programs.
The study, being published today in the journal Nature, does not suggest any particular interventions that might boost a child's intelligence. But Richard J. Davidson, a brain imaging expert at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said the fact that the region of the brain being studied is highly malleable suggests that experience and environmental cues may play a very important role in shaping intelligence.

And of course, the question is: What experiences and environmental cues are impacting these children? What genetic factors are? What educational factors? And what additional factors could, if only we knew to use them?

Just asking these questions increases the likelihood we will find answers to them. Unfortunately, we may not like all the answers we get. Just like steroids, there are apt to be some "enhancements" whose drawbacks are considered too severe by the rest of us. But if someone is in an extremely competitive environment (like professional sports, only with more abstract or visual/artistic thinking), they may feel the flaws are worth it. How do we regulate them without interfering too greatly in their personal freedom? Or, if we do not regulate such "advantages," what happens to the people who forego the short-term benefits in favor or their long term health or emotional or mental stability?

All questions which even a harmless experiment force to reconsider.


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Future Imperative

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