The Brain Electric
Our brains tell our hearts to beat and our lungs to expand. They co-ordinate the complex nerve and skeletal movements that allow us to climb the stairs or reach for a glass of water. We may imagine that our brains are primarily for thinking. Yet “at some essential level”, as Malcolm Gay explains, their “sole function” is that of issuing “motor commands”. These commands are in fact what enable our “thoughts, memories, and intentions – our conscious experience of the world”. To convey to you what I think about Gay’s intriguing and provocative The Brain Electric I had to type out my thoughts and send them to the editor by manipulating a keyboard. Now you are either reading them off a physical copy of the paper, which perhaps you bought from the shops, or on a screen. Without a huge number of intricately related motor commands issued by both my brain and yours, including to our eyes, none of this would be possible.
Yet sometimes, accident or illness renders the body unable to give physical expression to the mind’s intentions and thoughts. Explosions may claim limbs. Strokes can lock people inside their bodies. Gay begins The Brain Electric with a detailed description of a brain surgery carried out by Dr Eric Leuthardt, who planted a web of electrodes both on top of and into the brain of an epileptic who suffered such relentless and debilitating convulsions that he was happy to undergo the high-risk operation. If all went well, the implants create a “brain-computer interface” (BCI) that would grant the patient mental control of the cursor on a computer screen and the surgeon-scientist further insight into the brain and its malfunctions so that he might begin to work out how to fix it.
Before BCI, we had the notion of the “cyborg”, a term coined in 1960 by the American research scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline to describe the “biochemical, physiological, and electronic modifications” that they believed astronauts would require to survive space travel. The idea of the cyborg inspired such films as Blade Runner, with its “replicants”, and The Terminator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a part-machine, part-man warrior. The military has its own armoured dreams for BCI, and some not far off Hollywood’s more nightmarish fantasies. Other visionaries imagine being able to grant people X-ray vision, perfect recall or telepathic communication skills.
Neuroprosthetics experienced a huge breakthrough early this century when scientists managed to create a BCI with monkeys whose brains “eventually embraced the cursor itself as an entirely new appendage”. Yet, as Gay notes, “The neural matrix is wildly complex.” To date, even the most stellar examples of BCI rely on a person (or primate) being physically chained to the computer via a cascade of wires from the top of their head. The pursuit of the perfect BCI – wireless, for one thing – is by necessity highly technical and interdisciplinary. Research teams include computer scientists, biomechanical engineers and surgeons with academic researchers and others. The lab chat is of drift, firing rates, nonlinear functions, population vectors and algorithms. On the way to the grandest goals, they aim for milestones such the invention of an implant that neither drifts nor decays in the brain.
The Brain Electric is at once popular science and procedural thriller. Gay conjures in vivid detail the personalities of both the neuroprostheticists and the patients whose worlds they are transforming one electrode at a time. It is an overwhelmingly male world, fiercely competitive and backbitingly bitchy, and full of hubris: Leuthardt, an immigrant kid who’d been pushed around at school, told Gay he went into medicine so that “The world would operate by the force of my will …” Even the patients are big personalities – the irrepressible stroke victim Cathy Hutchinson nonplusses a team of Brown University scientists when she arrives for her first BCI session wearing mouse ears and a tail to celebrate her role as lab rat. Over a series of gruelling sessions, Hutchinson learns to use her mind to move a robotic arm to reach for, grasp and then drink from a bottle. It was the first time in 15 years she’d been able to feed herself. “The smile on her face,” said one of the researchers, “was something that I and I know our whole research team will never forget.”
BCI is an expensive pursuit. Its funding requires deep pockets. Few pockets in this world are deeper than that of the US military; Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is a key funder of BCI research. DARPA’s focus is clear. As a representative told a conference of neuroprostheticists in 2012: “I care about amputees. I care about pain. I care about other things like that. I don’t really care about Parkinson’s disease.” DARPA also is keen for neuroprosthetics (exoskeletal armour, for example) that can be used on the battlefield.
As for the rest, as Leuthardt states: “It’s not a growth market. You have to reconcile your noble intentions with a pragmatic economic reality of what the market will and will not support. How many new amputees are coming on line each year? Maybe eleven thousand? Twelve thousand? That’s simply not enough for a venture capitalist.” Patents are the scientists’ chief assets. Thanks to his invention of a particular type of probe, Leuthardt can make the startling claim: “Between the surface of the brain and the scalp is what we own.”
Gay is a dispassionate and acute observer of this world and its possibilities. He describes discoveries that neuroprostheticists have made about consciousness and empathy that, as suggested above, shake up any belief that “cognition [is] somehow higher and separate from motor function”. Neuroprostheses, he writes, do “not only challenge our traditional notions of the human body”. Potentially, they will “fundamentally transform our understanding of … what it means to be human.” To think how much influence over this transformation is wielded by the military and the market together is sobering. CG
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2015 as "Malcolm Gay, The Brain Electric". Subscribe here.