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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.


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.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Jolting Your Neurons to Life: Boosting Verbal and Creative Skills and Memory in the Frankenstein Tradition

Yes, a generation of mad scientists are standing over their field (of electroshock brain enhancement) shouting "It's alive! It's alive!" Why?

To begin with, this article from Reuters describes an experiment in which mild electrical flows were used to stimulate the brains of sleeping subjects, resulting in enhanced memory.
When they applied several currents that mimic natural slow oscillating brain waves in sleep they enhanced the memory of medical students who had done a word-learning task.

"It leads to improved memory retention," said Jan Born, a neuroscientist at the University of Luebeck.

This method could help people with memory problems as well as senile dementia caused Alzheimer's and other diseases.

If the currents were applied to the scalp during deep sleep, the first few hours of nocturnal sleep, the students recalled a greater number of words than if they had been given a sham brain stimulation.

"This is proof that this slow oscillation has a real function during sleep -- to build and consolidate memory," said Born.

"It is an eight percent increase overall. This is a striking increase," he added.
The article also notes that the medical students in question already had very good memory skills, so this effect isn't simply the result of repairing weaknesses in an underperforming brain. We're seeing an improvement of almost 1/12 over a typical subject's normal recall. That's fairly significant for such a simple technique.

And we might ask ourselves, once this method is improved and the technology refined, would unobtrusive electrodes be able to pass microcurrents through our heads whenever we need enhanced memory during the day? Also, some readers may recall this Wired article on the discovery that passing tiny electrical currents through the front of someone's head can boost verbal skills by as much as 20%.

Perhaps the best question to ask is: How many such intellect-enhancing "shortcuts" are out there? How frequently can they be (safely) applied to our brains? Could an unobtrusive electrical stimulation device simultaneously enhance our abilities in several different domains -- not just memory and verbal skills, but mathematical ability, visualization, creative talents, learning new skills, etc?

We should remember the intriguing research in cranial electro-stimulation and transcranial magnetic stimulation, technologies which seem to enhance creativity and/or intelligence. Some of these devices are already available to the public as affordable electronic tools. So this evolution and democratization of these technologies is already underway.

Consider: A near-perpetual, harmless and effortless means of improving human abilities could have a profound impact on the general population, especially given that many high-performing people, statistically speaking, are only small step above the average person on many tests of basic skills. People with the equivalent of a 140 I.Q. can generally work as scientists or doctors, or in low-skilled manual labor; it's their choice. People with an effective 70 I.Q. are basically stuck with the low-skilled labor jobs; there's nothing else they can master with a reasonable expenditure of effort.

This kind of technology might not make us all geniuses, but it could put whole new careers and life-opportunities within reach of millions if not billions of human beings. And that alone makes it worthy of further attention.

Bio, Cyber
Future Imperative