The week of April 10, 2016

Victim of the brain

By Jesse Hicks

The philosopher Douglas Hofstadter once said, somewhat ruefully, “I am just a victim of my brain.” He meant that his identity, his capabilities, his self, came from a few pounds of flesh, over which he had only so much control. Most scientists would agree: We are our brains, and our brains are us. Yet the brain retains its mysteries; we don’t always understand it, and often we want to escape or overcome it. In this issue of the Kernel, we’re looking at that desire—to comprehend, change, and finally control the brain.

First, Anna Denejkina looks at transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), in which researchers typically apply electrical current through the forehead to stimulate the prefrontal cortex. Studies suggest tDCS may helpfully treat depression and potentially enhance cognition. That’s good news for anyone looking for an alternative to medication, but the possibility of amped-up brainpower has also spawned a community of tinkerers who’re trying to DIY their way to greater mental acuity. In turn, a number of companies have begun selling tDCS devices—a development that has some researchers worried about the consequences of letting anyone try to hack their brains.

Not all brain hacking is as risky as running electricity into your prefrontal cortex. Simon Oxenham looks at speed-reading, with its long history of promising to make you capable of absorbing information at a nearly superhuman rate. Like the cognitive enhancement of tDCS, speed-reading is a means of self-improvement: It makes your brain work better, so you can be better. Unfortunately, as Oxenham details, it’s also likely biologically impossible. That’s not a new finding; scientists have long debunked speed-reading, but the idea persists because it’s a hopeful one: The brain’s limits can be overcome with perseverance and ingenuity, and we don’t have to be victims of biology. If only it were that simple.

Why do such hopeful fictions resist continual debunking? That’s the question Neuroskeptic (a pseudonym, naturally) asks about our current age of “neurobunk.” It seems easier than ever to slap a “neuro” on old products and claim for them magical new properties. (The most egregious, as he details, might be the chocolate milk turned concussion-prevention drink.) Maybe all this neurobunk is the inevitable byproduct of our increasing understanding of the brain. We know more than ever, even though much about its workings remain mysterious; despite brightly colored fMRI displays and the proliferation of self-help books supposedly provoked by breakthroughs in neuroscience, we’re still grasping in the dark, trying to make full sense of our brains and of ourselves.

Enjoy the issue.

Photo via Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr (PD) | Remix by Jason Reed