You only use 10 percent of your brain – oh yeh!?

A popular myth is that you only use 10 percent of your brain. The issue then becomes whether there are brain training techniques that would enable you to double your output by doubling the brain used, or increase your memory by slotting info in all those unused spaces.

Reality is, surprise surprise, different.

A TED talk points out that we need to add a few words to the myth – we only use 10 percent of our brain at any one time. The difference is key, as over time we use it all.

According to this presenter it all boils down to energy. We struggle to pour enough power into our glucose hungry brains and if it all ran at once we would run out. Selectively turning on linked nodes, and switching which nodes we use for different tasks is an efficient way of getting things done.

Try to multi-task, though, and it starts to crumble – there isn’t enough energy for both of the tasks.

Interesting to note that modafinil and other similar brain boosters operate by tampering with the brains energy system, letting it run at a marginally faster rate, but also leaving users feeling ‘drained’ at the end of a dose. The supply is limited, so turning up usage puts a strain on the system.

and the Uploading hyper-rubbish keeps spewing out

“The question is not whether we can upload our brains onto a computer, but what will become of us when we do” says neuroscientist, novelist and composer Michael Graziano in his recent blog. This sort of rubbish about uploading is so easy to write, but so difficult to evidence.

Before rushing out and getting ready to jump into his uploaded world, lets check his level of certainty. One quick things to do is look for words of uncertainty. I did a quick ‘if’ count. I spotted 20. Lets look for ‘might’. I spotted 17. How about the security of his argument. “And my best guess is: yes, almost certainly.”

It’s interesting to see that there is no technical justification behind his claim, except the statement that his is a neuroscientist who has been around for a bit, and a strong reliance on fictitious worlds presented in various movies… as if they have any bearing on reality.

The most sane comments in this page come in the comments after the piece, most of which are a refreshing breeze of common sense. Most pick the piece to pieces.

New Eugenics – addition or deletion?

Interesting to see eugenics back in the news again, this time with Professor John Harris advocating that we warmly embrace its goals. In this News Night discussion he claims that eugenics is ok because we can do it from choice, while it was previously wrong because it came from co-ercion.

Its an interesting argument. The logic of personal choice, extended to parental choice seems hard to beat. Surely you should have the freedom to take important decisions without the state or other systems telling you what to do? Shouldn’t you?

The problem is that in eugenics nothing is neutral. While we may rightly strive to do everything in our power to make the lives of existing people better, and as such seek the basic eugenic goal of improving the human condition, eugencis soon goes down its historic route of sparing future generation of those who ought not to be born.

Prof Harris was quick to defend the idea of embryo selection as a means of weeding out those who may have poor lives, but was rapidly tackled by other people in the studio who point out that there is lots more to a happy life than just functional capability. Family structures, friendships, need and interdependence are the characteristics that build strong societies, not regiments of perfect people.

The aim is also likely to lead to dissapointment. You can have a perfectly delivered baby who gets knocked down on the way to school and spends the rest of her life in a wheelchair. In a society that only values perfection, she has little role to play.

So do I want to be imperfect? Certainly no. Do I wish people to be as good as they can be? Certainly yes. The challenge though, as one of the panel put it is to attempt to build societies that care for all, rather than attempting to build a popultion of perfect people. Do we want to add capability to our people and our places, or delete the ones who don’t seem to fit?

Italy has a transhumanist politician – far thinking or far-fetched?

In science magazine New Scientist, Transhumanist politician and Italian politician Giuseppe Vatinno, says that transhumanism “aims to continuously improve humanity. It promotes science and technology but with people at its centre.” So far, there is nothing controversial. Most people would sign up to this.

“It does this through the development of technologies that boost health and fight ageing and disease, by replacing lost or defective body parts and by improving the internet, communication technologies and artificial intelligence.” Another serving of motherhood and apple pie.

But then… “Ultimately, it aims to free humanity from its biological limitations, overcoming natural evolution to make us more than human.” Ok… so now we’ve moved to sci-fi.

As a play thing, a tool to think about the nature of humanity, transhumanism has an interesting power. Just as sci-fi movies ask us to investigate our value, motives and relationships, transhumanism challenges us to consider the ‘me’ within the being.

But to use this as a tool to form political policy is worrying. Yes, let’s aspire to do better, stretch further, live more healthy lives. But politics is about reality. And in reality we are not going to be freed from our biology. We may have great tools that stretch our capabilities, we may build medical and therapeutic technologies that enable us to overcome disease and push death further down the line. And if that is what he means by overcoming our biology, then we are all transhumanists. But the idea of pushing so far that we leave our biology behind in history, step out of our evolutionary roots and take on a new existence as homo techno is too far-fetched to take seriously.

How to hear colour – and government recognition of a cyborg?

Has hearing in colour generated a new sense?

I had an interesting hour on Monday afternoon. BioCentre had invited me to join in a teleconference with Neil Harbisson. Neil has booked a slot on the international speakers’ tour by claiming to be the first government-recognised cyborg, and I was keen to examine the claim.

When he was born, Neil’s eyes did not enable him to see in colour, and that colour-blindness has stayed with him. As an artist he got used to seeing in shades of black and white. In 2004 someone gave him a piece of kit that has become known as the ‘eyeborg’. Neil calls it a “eye, attached to my head”. The technology is a camera on a flexible stalk coupled to a small processor. The camera detects colour and the processor turns the signal in to a tone. Different colours produce different tones. The kit has now been built into a headband and the tone is transmitted to Neil via a pressure pad held tightly against the outside of his head.

Neil wears the device 24/7 and claims that the effect has been profound. The constant input of tonal vibration to his skull means he now thinks and dreams in colour. This has become such a permanent feature that when the batteries go out, he still hears colours rattling around his head. As such, this is very much part of him. he is excited by “the union between software and brain”.

The technique is intriguing and extends his senses. It has altered his perception of the world.

But let’s look at a few claims.

Neil refers to the technology as an eyeborg, and the input device as an eye. In reality it is a simple low resolution camera – pretty much a light detector. Its aim is to pick up the average colour of the zone it looks at. An eye is much more complex – much much more complex.

He says that this has given him a new sense, that it isn’t using his sense of hearing. But the vibration will be sensed by the organs of the inner ear and transmitted to the brain by the auditory nerve. Ok, the vibration came through the skull and not the air, but so does most our hearing of our own voice. It’s a novel detector that feeds into the brain via an existing sensory route.

Press coverage and Neil’s phraseology imply that the UK passport office recognises him as a cyborg, and that he is the first person to receive this recognition. During the interview Neil confirmed that the passport office has never used the term cyborg, but has simply allowed the technology to be included in his photo. That in itself was an interesting step and took some negotiation. But having human-built kit on our faces is not novel – you can have glasses so long as the frame doesn’t obscure the eyes. Many people have plastic surgery and prosthetic items in their face that are very much part of their identity. Some have equipment such as cochlear implants and hearing aids that appear in the photo as well. Neil might have stretched the boundaries – but I’m not sure he has created a new world.

At the end of the call, I was really pleased to have been involved. Neil was charming and highly enthusiastic about his personal experiment. He has clearly captured people’s imagination and attention, and even has some practical spin-offs in the way it can analyse areas – Neil says that each city has its own colour: London is red/yellow; Lisbon turquoise/blue… His device does raise issues and questions. But it is a relatively straightforward piece of technology and the UK government hasn’t called him a cyborg.