The Neuro Revolution

Neuro Revolution

The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World
Zack Lynch
St. Martin’s Press
Hardcover, July 2009

Neurotechnology is a somewhat daunting term used to describe a wide range of technologies. At MIT, there is a flurry of research dollars going into diagnostic imaging of the brain through methods such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), neuropharmacology (drugs, including painkillers and antidepressants, that affect brain and nervous system functioning), enhancements or replacements for sensory or motor systems (cochlear or retinal implants, "smart" prosthetics) and neurostimulation through implanted electrodes to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s or to restore mobility to paralyzed patients.

This can be pretty esoteric stuff for a lay reader. But Zack Lynch’s new book The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin’s Press, July 2009) does an excellent job of laying out the scientific impact of neurotechnology on such diverse areas as financial markets, law enforcement, politics, advertising and marketing, artistic expression, and warfare. It is written in language that should be comfortable for Wall Street financiers, marketeers, scientists, software developers, artists, theologians, and even poker players — as well as any reader of popular science interested in where technology is going.

The Neuro Revolution by Zack LynchZack’s book contains a number of anecdotes about the researchers and technologies that are helping to shape what he characterizes as the emerging “neurosociety.” Lynch views this as nothing short of a revolution akin to the agricultural, industrial, and information revolutions that precede it. He refers to this as “Time’s Telescope,” and draws on the history of technological revolutions to project into an entirely plausible –- if slightly scary –- future.

What might have been hyperbole turns out to be timely, well conceived, and well executed. Lynch focuses on how to broaden the conversation, not necessarily to answer the specifics or the hardest question. The book is well cited and referenced from a journalistic perspective, although it might be criticized for not citing the latest and greatest research papers in the field.

It’s not a deep dive, but rather a tour-de-force attempt to spark public dialogue about how neurotechnology is impacting society now and in the future.

The early chapters of the book focus on research into an understanding of how the brain’s emotional states, which can be used for more effective marketing and financial decision making. In the chapter “Do you See What I Hear,” he examines neurotechnology that will noninvasively stimulate different regions of the brain, in order to lightly induce sensations in virtual reality environments, bringing about unique “experiential entertainment landscapes.” A later chapter, “Fighting Neurowarfare,” delves into the military applications of neuroscience — for example, instant training applications like learning the basics of a foreign language instantaneously, or memorizing data such as maps, faces, and placements.

Neurotechnology will noninvasively stimulate different regions of the brain, in order to lightly induce sensations in virtual reality environments, bringing about unique “experiential entertainment landscapes.”

Some might consider a chapter called “Where is God?” as the ultimate hubris. Zack actually makes a compelling case that imaging results from meditators and nuns show that their spiritual activity creates very different patterns inside their brains. More controversially, he also cites a 2006 study into the use of psilocybin — the psychoactive ingredient found in one type of psychoactive mushrooms –- as a diagnostic experimental device to help characterize spiritual experiences. While he doesn’t profess that science will necessarily resolve the age-old questions of religion, he does suggest that “the repeated neurotheological exploration of spiritual, religious, mystical experiences” will likely reveal moral instincts and intuitions such as fairness and empathy that are shared cross culturally.

Neurotechnology is a rapidly growing field that draws upon biology, medical imaging, computer science and other areas of research. It is providing a fertile ground for both existing businesses and startups. According to MIT’s website (See Resources below), MIT has created a new research program and is offering numerous classes – including one on how to launch businesses in the industry.

Brain neuronsThe multidisciplinary, interdepartmental work in neurotechnology at MIT was spurred in part by the creation in 2006 of the McGovern Institute Neurotechnology (MINT) program. "MIT is almost in a uniquely good position to develop new technologies," says its director Charles Jennings, "We have an extraordinary set of advantages." Zack is on the Institute’s advisory board.

The Neuro Revolution should spark a broad public dialog about the societal implications of where this technology might go, and how to begin the conversation around the regulatory options — neurotechnology clearly has both its up and down sides. One example: many people will be considered about having anyone (or anything) “inside their heads.” The issues will not be simple, and Lynch elegantly lays out many of the likely ethical, legal, and social complexities.

This is a thought-provoking and important read that deserves a wide audience.

We will be posting an interview with Zack Lynch about the book tomorrow.

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