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    Pin-Yin Shi Shi Zao Ying Xiong! (part 3)
    This is the third of a series of articles jointly written by Wildcat and Spaceweaver, summing our techno-optimistic view of 2008. This part is dedicated to the explosion in brain science, psychology and the very real prospects of enhancing human intelligence.

    We have concluded part 2 with the statement:” let us be rational dreamers, humble visionaries but above all let us forsake ignorance.“ To rid ourselves from ignorance we need of necessity understand our minds, our brains and the neurological strata that underlie all that we perceive, know, think, feel, emote and so on. We need to understand how our brains and consequently our minds have been shaped by the blind forces of evolution that are both guiding and limiting human intelligence and its manifests. As the understanding of our own minds expands, the doors to self guided conscious evolution open. A profound human transformation becomes viable.

    Year 2008 has presented us with a proliferation of new insights into the working order of this most amazing machine, the human brain, we discovered that our brains via vastly increased usage of the internet are evolving into a new state of hyperconnectivity. But this is only the tip of an iceberg. Perhaps the most astounding presentation last year, a scientific achievement which barely received its rightly deserved status of breakthrough, was the first high-resolution map of the human cortical network.

    This map reveals that the brain has its own version of ‘Grand Central Station’, a central hub that is structurally connected to many other parts of the brain. Scientists generated the map using a new type of brain imaging known as diffusion imaging. The technique maps the largely inaccessible tangle of the brain's white matter, the long, thin fibers that ferry nerve signals between various brain areas. Scientists hope that using this noninvasive method to study neural connections in people with Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and autism will shed light on how changes in brain architecture are linked to these complex diseases.

    "The fact that such a core exists gives rise to many questions we can now ask about it," says Olaf Sporns, a neuroscientist at Indiana University, in Bloomington, and senior author of the study, published this week (July 07, 2008) in PLoS Biology. "What goes on there? And how is it involved in passing messages between different parts of the brain?"

    The very fact that we have such a hub in our brains about which we knew next to nothing before the diffusion imaging technology was made available is telling. Up until quite recently we could only speculate on the plasticity and intricacy of the human brain and its ability to be influenced, shaped and thoroughly transformed by impressions and our every day experiences. Scientific American blog 'Mind matters' sums this year in neuroscience: “This fact is, perhaps, a testament to the increasing relevance of neuroscience and psychology to society. As scientists break open the black box of the mind, and begin to unravel the neural processes that define our behavior, it’s becoming clear that who we are and what we decide to do is ultimately shaped by the quirks and constraints of these three pounds of flesh inside the head. “

    On the same lines, a fascinating brain and mind report on New Scientist under the title:'The outer limits of the human brain' starts with the following: “Even the average human brain is remarkable. In adults it has perhaps 100 billion neurons, each connected to its neighbors by 5000 synapses or so. A brain can make and break a million new connections each second. It can store information for more than a century if you live that long, automatically cataloguing, re-filing and editing as needed. It can reconstruct our surroundings using a range of sensors that sample vibration, electromagnetic radiation, chemicals and pressure, and prioritize in milliseconds what might be of interest or concern. It coordinates at least 640 muscles and looks after the essentials of energy generation, reproduction and survival with little thought, freeing our minds to socialize, ponder the meaning of our existence and learn from our experiences and those of people who we may never even have met.”

    Witness, for one example, how our interactions with others either in physical space or otherwise, allows us to both influence and be influenced and by that extends our behavior in ways previously unseen and only intuitively guessed at. A Discovery News’ article 'How Visiting Your Family Warps Your Brain' reveals: “Visiting or even just viewing photos of family members prompts brain activity that affects how you feel about them, your friends, and even yourself, a new study suggests. The study is the first to compare brain activity associated with seeing relatives with that linked to seeing friends and strangers. It suggests our feelings about biological relatives are at least somewhat primal”, in our case Neolithic.

    We all know that everything is connected and correlated but how much of it do we really take into account when for example we perform a Google search or socialize via the net? Do we take into consideration the fact that 'Internet speeds up decision making and brain function', and thus leads researchers to believe that our brains could evolve over the long term with the increased use of technology? Such findings are expanded in Dr Small's book: 'iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind', and are published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Dr. Gary Small, one of America's leading neuroscientists and experts on brain function and behavior, explores how technology's unstoppable march forward has altered the way young minds develop, function, and interpret information. iBrain reveals a new evolution catalyzed by technological advancement and its future implications: Where do you fit in on the evolutionary chain? What are the professional, social, and political impacts of this new brain evolution? How must you adapt and at what price?

    In a recent Scientific American article, ‘Your iBrain: How Technology Changes the Way we Think’ the authors write: “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but also is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains. Daily exposure to high technology—computers, smart phones, video games, search engines such as Google and Yahoo—stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening old ones. Because of the current technological revolution, our brains are evolving right now—at a speed like never before.”

    Just at the end of the year, researchers at the University of Rochester have shown that the human brain-once thought to be a seriously flawed decision maker-is actually hard-wired to allow us to make the best decisions possible with the information we are given. The findings are published in December 2008's issue of the journal Neuron. "A lot of the early work in this field was on conscious decision making, but most of the decisions you make aren't based on conscious reasoning," says Pouget. "You don't consciously decide to stop at a red light or steer around an obstacle in the road. Once we started looking at the decisions our brains make without our knowledge, we found that they almost always reach the right decision, given the information they had to work with."

    All this implies that our brains are evolving as we speak, as we write, as we search, as we classify. Not only that evolution has not slowed down or stopped as some have suggested, it is a truism for those in the know that technology with a large emphasis on computers and the internet is enhancing our brains, day in and day out, moment by moment and bit by byte.

    It will be beyond the scope of this article to even start to explore all the profound implications that our expanding knowledge of neuroscience and psychology carry on human civilization. In the light of the current global economical crisis it is nothing short of enlightening to read Edge’s excellent series: ‘A short course in behavioral economics’.

    Sendhil Mullainaithan:
    A lot of what makes behavioral economics interesting is psychology; it is about what happens inside the mind. These phenomena are taking things that are happening inside the mind and interfacing them with things happening in the world, the environment, and getting feedback or getting interesting responses from that. We happen to call the word economics. But it's not economics. You could be talking about crime, you could be talking about many things, in the social domain, the entire spectrum of human behavior. Anyone who is interested in the broader world should be interested in something we currently call "behavioral economics.

    Daniel Kahenman:
    What we're saying is that there is a technology emerging from behavioral economics. It's not only an abstract thing. You can do things with it. We are just at the beginning.

    Behavioral economics, is a relatively new interdisciplinary field that introduces insights from neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology into the fields of economics and large scale complex systems. We believe that this field is most promising in deciphering how the dynamics of individual minds give rise to the complex processes of large scale economical and societal systems. In the already emerging reality of exponential increase in connectivity and complexity, such understanding is critical. Which brings us to perhaps the most interesting and critical issue that gained our attention this year; it is the issue of brain enhancement. It is becoming quite clear that facing accelerating change, exponential increase in complexity, and the number of global crises that humanity faces, we urgently need to become more intelligent and more capable. It is much less obvious to most of us and most notably to policy makers, that the huge advances in neuroscience are already putting in our hands real and immediately applicable tools to enhance our brains. Intelligence enhancement is a viable option now, with implications we can only dare to guess.

    Brain enhancement, the pursuing of increased mental and cognitive abilities by pharmaceutical means, is initially a controversial issue. In most countries it is illegal. Yet lately, a growing consensus is emerging that we should, as a society, change our attitude and allow and even encourage individuals to do just that. A ground breaking article 'Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy' in the prestigious Nature magazine starts with the following:

    Society must respond to the growing demand for cognitive enhancement. That response must start by rejecting the idea that 'enhancement' is a dirty word, argue Henry Greely and colleagues.

    Today, on university campuses around the world, students are striking deals to buy and sell prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin not to get high, but to get higher grades, to provide an edge over their fellow students or to increase in some measurable way their capacity for learning. These transactions are crimes in the United States, punishable by prison.

    Many people see such penalties as appropriate, and consider the use of such drugs to be cheating, unnatural or dangerous. Yet one survey estimated that almost 7% of students in US universities have used prescription stimulants in this way, and that on some campuses, up to 25% of students had used them in the past year. These students are early adopters of a trend that is likely to grow, and indications suggest that they're not alone2.

    In this article, we propose actions that will help society accept the benefits of enhancement, given appropriate research and evolved regulation. Prescription drugs are regulated as such not for their enhancing properties but primarily for considerations of safety and potential abuse. Still, cognitive enhancement has much to offer individuals and society, and a proper societal response will involve making enhancements available while managing their risks.

    Brain enhancement raises of course many ethical issues that are being debated over the media and in academic communities. There are claims that the use of mental and cognitive pharmaceutical enhancers and even moral performance enhancers should not only be legalized and encouraged but put into the drinking water to achieve a global intelligence upgrade of all society.

    Sean Spence, a British psychiatrist in a paper in a prominent psychiatry journal writes: “A responsible person, a moral agent, takes account of their future behavior and its likely impact upon others. Such an agent may choose to influence their future by exogenous means. If so, might pharmacology help them to do this? Is it doing so already? I argue that it is.” Spence mentions that drugs could be specifically designed to "target and increase a prosocial feeling and behavior such as 'kindness.'" Would you take a kindness pill? (from Wired Magazine: 'Gandhi Pills? Psychiatrist Argues for Moral Performance Enhancers').

    In a New York Times article named 'Raising the World’s I.Q.', Nicholas D. Kristof reveals a plan to massively boost intelligence worldwide using a chemical additive, as part of the micronutrient initiative. He writes:

    “Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness. When a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an I.Q. that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion I.Q. points around the world.”

    “Probably no other technology,” the World Bank said of micronutrients, “offers as large an opportunity to improve lives ... at such low cost and in such a short time.”

    “The Copenhagen Consensus, which brings together a panel of top global economists to find the most cost-effective solutions to the world’s problems, puts micronutrients at the top of the list of foreign aid spending priorities.”

    In a blog post 'The perfect cognition enhancer' about the same issue, Andres Sandberg adds: “Similarly iodine appears to be a de facto cognitive enhancer with big social impact: the total economic impact of reduced iodine deficiency can be enormous. Iodine deficient populations had 12.5-13.5 IQ points less than normal populations. In areas of severe iodine deficiency cretinism can affect 5-10%, straining the resources of the community to support them beside the direct loss to the sufferers. Since cognition is important for personal success, for example by affecting how much can be learned in school, work productivity and health behaviors, deficiency likely has large detrimental effects on the community.

    Using the assumption that 1 IQ point is worth about 1% increased income (a low estimate; when comparing IQs and GDP across countries the relation seems even stronger) this would mean an increase in average income by at least 10% - definitely nothing to sneeze at. Better, there seem to be strong network effects of cognition in a society: if more people are smart, educatable and healthy they will produce wealth more efficiently. Note that this calculation has not taken into account the effects of apathy and illness due to iodine deficiency, just the cognitive impairment - fixing those will probably have at least a comparable effect on their own.”

    There is no doubt that there is a direct link between smarts and the ability to produce wealth. There seems to be a firm connection between mental and cognitive enhancement and technological progress. In the light of the serious problems humanity faces today, the importance of pharmaceutical brain enhancement becomes quite clear and we are sure we will see its priority rapidly increasing on the public agenda. Our attitude towards intelligence enhancement is perhaps the most significant paradigm shift presently taking place.

    We need be extremely careful both in our understanding of what these new horizons of brain research and brain augmentation imply and in how to apply them, but given that our intelligence influences everything we do and are (even semen quality was recently linked to Intelligence). It stands to reason that these fresh and deep insights into the very construct of our minds and brains will deflate our ignorance and increase our wisdom. Brain and mind augmentation both via pharmaceuticals and other technologies that are rapidly maturing, are leading us towards the prospect of self guided evolution. As we steadily approach this frontier, which is after all our main goal as conscious aware intelligent entities, we will need to reach a new level of emotional maturity and develop a profound sense of responsibility.

    Though we are humble in our understandings and realize the limits of human scientific and technological realization at present we nevertheless feel that self guided evolution is both the prerogative and duty of each and every conscious aware intelligent entity, desiring to finally let go of its Neolithic heritage into a future of clarity and universal beneficence.

    The prospect of self guided evolution is the foundation upon which we base our techno optimistic view and vision.

    On computing and the convergence brain and machine in our next entry.


    To be continued in part 4

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    Morningstar     Thu, Jan 8, 2009  Permanent link
    Thanks for this condensed and beautiful piece….Self guided evolution sounds like a very interesting perspective in a life worth living. One thing that comes at first reading is that, yes, the human needs to rapidly adjust to the exponential rapidity that the paradigmatic shift involving the human mind is taking. So much so that the perception is becoming that of a rapidly increasing pace, at times seen as a whirly, vertiginous vertigo of previously unheard of rhythm of expansion, in which language no longer suffices and if one is to attempt the challenge of possibly riding the wave… one needs to become aware to emerging parameters while creating their description and contribution…
    In that, each individual will require/have the possibility not only to enhance its cognitive capacity, but also to become aware of the pace or rhythm it can/wishes/chooses to run at and relate as, within the whole nebulose of happening…. this itself I think is an open ended possibility, in the sense of expanded and expandable.
    It brings me an image of a human that needs to refine the capacity of jumping and switching up/down/across/beyond layers of thought, sensations etc, and of compacting/unbundling dimensions within its own very expanded/expandable mind and life activity, much as the electron in the atom has the ubiquitous property of switching from physical to wave form according to observation.
    And yes, I agree it will most probably require to be closely coupled to an enhanced level of emotional capacity and to the capacity of sustaining somewhat the responsibility it all entails, given that there will be freedom for such freedom (excuse the word play), and freedom of access and availability in particular, as is desirable and optimistically probable. I think it will be necessary to go deeper into the issue of enhancing emotional capacity and responsibility.
    There is then a need not only to be computer/new techs/future grids-literate, but, in accordance to the enhanced platform that the human creates/becomes, to refine and possibly be i-cognition-literate, where ‘i’ is a sort of meta-value parameter, a synonym that can stand, distinctly or simultaneously, for information/intelligence, but also for emotional/hyperconnective/empathic
    /aesthetic/synaesthetic/unknown y-factor, etc., …all this combined within the merging/emerging polytopian vision.

    well, that's my chip in for now....
    Phyllotaxis     Fri, Mar 11, 2011  Permanent link
    The brilliant descriptive arguments in these series should be read on the floors of every congress, "public" and "private", that they might, for the first time, breathe deeply into the possible that sits patiently in wait for us.

    My sincerest thanks for the eloquence and elegance of pure, simple truth you present us.
    Wildcat     Sat, Mar 12, 2011  Permanent link
    Many thanks Phyllotaxis, it is not often that we get this kind of recognition for the work we put in to help bring the change that we all desire to see in the world.