Engineering Enlightenment: Part Two
This is the second part of a three-part interview with Jeffery Martin and Mikey Siegel covering their groundbreaking research and thinking on the psychology and neuroscience of “enlightened” states of being. Catch the start of the series here if you haven’t read it yet.
On the neural side, what would you say are the most important, exciting results found so far about the neural basis of “extraordinary states of well-being”?
The initial data has converged around default and task mode networks. These are two networks of brain regions that usually activate at opposite times. In other words, when the task network is active generally the default mode is less active. We call this anti-correlation. The task network is generally more active when you are working on a specific task, hence its name. The default network is more loosely defined at the moment, in terms of its functions, but seems to relate in part to an individuals underlying sense of self. It is often active, for example, when someone is just sitting around and not really doing anything. Of course in those moments our mind is often wandering, and this often relates to things that have to do with some aspect of our sense of self. One interesting findings is that in the individuals we research these networks are less anti-correlated.
That’s incredibly fascinating, yeah. Can you say a little also, about the specific brain regions that are most implicated in the different functioning of these networks in “enlightened” people’s brains? Of course I know the brain is all about networks and complex circuits, not so much about localized functions specific to particular brain regions. But still, it’s interesting to know what regions are most centrally involved in each mental phenomenon….
Within the default network there are two or three areas that seem to be consistently indicated as related to this phenomena. These include parts of the medial pre-frontal cortex (mPFC), the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), and the insula. The one that has received the most ongoing research to date is the PCC. Much of the work going on in this area is underground, but everyone’s findings are very similar so the handful of publicly available work is plenty for people to pursue right now. On the scanning and neurofeedback side, your readers can find out more by looking up work by Zoran Josipovic at NYU, Jud Brewer at Yale, and Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia for example. There has also been work by us and others on directly stimulating these brain regions using electromagnetic fields and direct current. And there is quite a bit of parallel work, such as Katherine MacLean and her collaborators work on psilocybin that seems to relate to these overall findings. She is at Johns Hopkins . Overall it is a very exciting time with a lot of interesting data converging. We’re very privileged to be the organization that is talking to everyone and helping to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
What are your concrete plans for moving your research on neurofeedback forwards? Where is this going? Can we expect to see a “neurofeedback enlightenment X-box plugin” in the Toys R Us next year?
I hope so! Certainly we’re working hard on it. We are working on both the neurofeedback and neurostimulation fronts, and literally pursuing every avenue that looks promising. The neurofeedback path is being explored by others as well. For example, Jud Brewer’s group initially explored affecting the PCC with real-time feedback during fMRI, and is now looking at how to translate that work into less expensive technology like EEG. We have a similar initiative. To really get it down to the “Toys R Us” level requires a great deal of effort and advancement within the fields we’re working in. It has taken us about six years to get to the point where we could begin a serious effort in this direction, so really we are still in the early days. Having said that, we’ve already had some success with very simple neurostimulation devices being able to induce temporary periods that are highly similar to the persistent states we research. So progress is being made!
Any thoughts on neurofeedback and “mind hacking”? Is this sort of research something someone can do on their own, via a DIY science approach? From our prior conversations I get the feeling you think the answer is ‘”Hell, yeah!”
Absolutely! The term I’ve been throwing around is ‘Consciousness Hacking’, because much of what we’re talking about is, at least traditionally, considered outside or beyond the mind. Mystics, monks, and so many others are the original consciousness hackers. They used ‘technology’ like meditation, breathing, dance, ceremony, etc. to tap into altered states of consciousness, and using those tools they systematically explored the nature of subjective experience. Those techniques didn’t appear out of thin air, they were evolved through trial and error for a very specific purpose. And they continue to evolve! To make a categorical distinction between ‘traditional’ practices such as meditation, and technology assisted practices is ultimately arbitrary, like the lines on a map. They are all human inventions for the same purpose: the cessation of suffering.
That said, I think there is a hugely unexplored and fantastically ripe space for developing tools and techniques to shift our subjective experience and many of these are accessible to the DIY crowd. Neurofeedback and biofeedback have been around for decades and were one of the original forms of modern tech used to shift consciousness. Like much tech, EEG in its early days was inaccessible to the masses, but has now decreased in size, complexity, and price. You can pick up a Neurosky or Emotiv headset, both of which have accessible APIs, and get right to it. Another tech which has experienced a recent surge in popularity is Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS). This is a relatively simple device that runs a very small direct current through the brain and can result in distinct, and sometimes significant shifts in experience. The idea of running electrical current through the brain probably deters most folks and that is probably a good thing. Though the technology as its intended to be used is extremely safe, used incorrectly it can obviously be dangerous. There is a wealth of DIY info out there but much of it is rubbish so be very careful.
These were only a couple examples, and there is much more, but unfortunately there is no centralized resource for this info I can point you to. We are working on that, but for the moment anyone interested in this will have to be motivated by the pioneering opportunity it offers. Although there is a small but rich history of technology being used to explore consciousness, very few have looked directly at engineering what Jeffery calls Persistent Non-Symbolic Consciousness. I believe this area of exploration is filled with low hanging fruit, and a community of dedicated consciousness hackers can make real, meaningful discoveries.
How do you compare the promise of neurofeedback based approaches to achieving extraordinary states of well-being, versus other approaches out there?
EEG neurofeedback is sort of the classic technological approach to inducing altered states of consciousness (much to the chagrin of many neurofeedback practitioners), but I think its only the tip of the iceberg. Recent work in real-time fMRI feedback has been very exciting, showing that people can consciously modulate activity in the areas of the brain that seem particularly relevant such as the PCC and mPFC. And other technologies with better temporal resolution such as MEG, and real time spatial imaging using EEG (e.g. LORETA) are extremely promising. Neurofeedback has the quality that in principle any change enacted through feedback, could be accomplished independently. This is perhaps both an advantage and a limitation. Any technique/technology can be used irresponsibly but it would seem that in the case of neurofeedback the body is directly regulating the activity and thus there is some safety barrier by virtue of natural intelligence.
This is in contrast to brain stimulation technologies which have the capacity to directly modulate brain activity in ways not otherwise independently achievable. Some of these, such as electrical stimulation (tDCS, CES, etc) and TMS, work diffusely and seem to be relatively safe, but lack the precision of something like fMRI feedback. Other technologies such as pulsed ultrasound have great precision and the ability to target almost arbitrary brain regions, and seem to hold great promise. If these states can be induced by modulating activity in a small number of defined brain regions then one of these brain stimulation technologies might be ideal.
But if the experience is mediated by a much more complex and dynamic set of brain networks then a higher-level type of stimulation, such as interactive media, might be appropriate. Games, for example, could be a powerful tool for altering the behavior of the mind. The most effective methods though, may very well lie in the combination of these technologies.
Any thoughts about even more radical approaches than neurofeedback? What about brain implants that directly measure and modulate the brain appropriately? Wouldn’t that ultimately be even more effective than neurofeedback? Would you insert such a plugin into your brain? Want to be the alpha tester?
Although I’m all about putting myself out there in the name of science, I’m not sure if I’m ready for experimental neural implants. But, the ability to generate a sufficiently accurate model of an individual’s brain might allow us to develop unconventional but extremely effective methods catered to that individual. Imagine a scenario where we could both predict the effect of any stimulus on neural activity, and compute the target brain/physiological state (i.e. what that individual’s enlightened brain looks like). Given a set of human inputs and their unique parameters (magnetic, electrical, sound, light, smell, etc.) we could calculate an optimal combination for achieving the desired outcome. For example, that might be a few precise pulses of magnetic stimulation on the skull timed to the rhythm of that individual’s brain networks. Or it could be a synthetic voice verbalizing a seemingly obscure series of words in a cadence no human could replicate, transmitted through headphones over a period of weeks. This capability is probably part of any transhumanist vision and would be sufficient to produce a wide variety of subjective experiences, not just transcendent.
Personally I’d love to be a beta tester. I’m looking forward to these types of human enhancement and think they will have a profound impact on all of us. Certainly our area of research could be one of those that benefits from this type of technology, though I hope we have a very simple and effective solution to how to induce this long before brain implants become a common reality!
TO BE CONTINUED…
WATCH H+ MAGAZINE FOR THE THIRD AND FINAL PORTION OF THE INTERVIEW