There is a lot of buzz around brain recordings, brain computer interface (BCI), mind reading and similar on the internet right now. The question I usually get is — you record my brain and then what? Can you read my mind? Can I control drones? This blog explains what it is all about and why brain recordings should already be a part of our everyday life.
The brain is certainly the most complex and most important organ in our body. To reflect on what the body thinks about its importance, just note that it is the single organ entirely protected by bones. Unfortunately, this makes it more difficult for us to examine it and observe what is going on in there.
The brain never rests. There are close to 100 billion neurons in the brain and they are never quiet. Subconsciously, they take care of our physiological functions, emotions, sense the environment and are always ready to react to an outside stimulus. When we do nothing (rumor has it that only men are capable of this), the brain turns on the idle mode. In this mode, the neurons are not really idle, but they are organized in a number of, so called, resting state networks. Neurons mutually communicate within these networks in a synchronized way, oscillating with a specific frequency. Why can they never be quite? Because they are always ready to receive a stimulus and react to it.
How does the brain react to a stimulus? Some people call these oscillations brainwaves. I believe you heard of alpha, beta, gamma, delta and theta brainwave bands. When a stimulus (visual, auditory or any other) hits, these neurons desynchronize the resting state networks and form an activity, that we can measure as an event related potential. The excited networks then trigger other networks further in the brain. This is how our brain processes information — detects the stimulus, associates the meaning to it, performs other activities if necessary and stores it in the memory to create/modify experiences.
Each experience subtly modifies the default functionings and configurations of our standard networks. Imagine how many of these very tiny changes happen over a day, week or a year. They alter our brain continuously. By recording the brain activity, we detect changes in emotions, attention, mental effort and get valuable insights into our subconsciousness. Most importantly, we monitor physiological functioning and can detect changes that lead to developing various brain conditions.
Disclaimer: what is described here is not entirely scientific, but I believe it is a good approximation for a reader to get acquainted with the matter.
How to tap into the secret life of the brain?
Today, brain recordings are taken mostly either as a part of an experiment, or a medical procedure. In both cases, the data we collect are artificial in the sense that they are acquired under specific circumstances, and the processes we record are not due to regular, real-life functioning. As we do not take brain recordings regularly, it makes it virtually impossible for us to detect (mood, or health) changes in the brain if they do not already manifest elsewhere in the organism.
Even if there was a change and we do take a recording after the change happened, we are still not able to tell if there was a change or not, be it emotional or health change. Why are we not able to tell this? Well, simply because every brain is different, so there are no standards, and most probably no previous recordings has been taken of that same brain, so we have nothing to compare to.
In the world where brain readings are taken continuously, brain scientists and engineers have an enormous amount of standardized data to process and feed to artificial intelligence algorithms to learn from. They can learn to detect brain patterns, and more importantly, changes in these patterns. When health changes are in question, these changes can help us detect a developing brain condition and prevent further advancing of such a condition before it escalates.
To describe the benefits of brain recordings in everyday life, I will focus on 3 most impactful applications and discuss further the benefits of each of these separately.
Mental health has become a popular topic recently, as well. We live in an era of high work intensity. To advance in their careers people work more to get all the work done. By time, they become tired and their productivity drops, so they work longer, and sleep even less. This vicious circle finally leads to the lack of productivity that then leads to increased stress.
Additionally, many fast growing companies introduce open-space offices that don’t help increasing productivity at all. Even the Apple’s new $5bn campus consists of open space and the employees, reportedly, hate it.
Stress has become a hot topic in the last years as it is not merely psychological, but also leads to physiological consequences (fatigue, headache, upset stomach etc). On a long run, stress leads to even more serious consequences, such as burn outs and even further to depression. The numbers are devastating, check it out here for Europe and US.
To fight the lack of productivity, employees resort to meditation apps, noise-canceling headphones, online productivity radios etc. What they miss is a feedback on their current mental state and their mental performance.
The continuous recording of brain activity could help them obtain this insight. They could track their performance daily and receive reports on their performance. Based on these personalized reports they can track what parts of the day are more productive and where should they shift their focus. They can use the non-productive time to chill out, and rest. Maybe take a walk outside and energize.
Furthermore, such a system can recommend things to do, music to listen, food to eat to get the maximum of their mental abilities in the shortest time. In return, this leads to more time devoted to their family, children, people their care about, and most importantly, themselves — you know, just to watch a movie, do some fitness or simply grab a beer with friends.
Medicine — detection and early prevention of brain conditions
Medical applications benefit the most and are a simple consequence of everyday use.
Imagine the following notifications on your smartphone —” you are at risk of having a stroke in the following two days, please contact the doctor urgently”. Or even the doctor contacts you directly to communicate this and instruct you how to prevent it.
As for epilepsy, in many countries in the world, people who are under the risk of epileptic seizures cannot drive. If they would have their brain continuously screened, the system would be able to detect or predict seizures. With that in mind, the system can switch to the autonomous driving mode, that would then park the car and call a doctor. Or, even better, just drive the user straight to hospital.
Diagnosing epilepsy is a problem on its own. Some people spend 10 years without a proper diagnosis. In UK alone, 400–600 people die each year simply due to misdiagnosis of epileptic seizures. This would be instantly avoided with the use of continuous monitoring.
In theory (we still don’t know that as we cannot test it), making continuous recordings and being able to detect brain changes would allow predicting many conditions that we struggle today with, like stroke and epilepsy, detect early (or treat) Parkinson disease, Lewy Body Dementia, Alzheimer disease. Once detected, these conditions can be postponed, or maybe fully prevented. It would also help detection and diagnosis of epileptic seizures and many others.
Let your subconsciousness choose for you
Finally, in the modern world, the most scarce resource we all have is … time. We are overwhelmed with possibilities and daily have to make a huge number of choices, which only do not make much difference. There is a famous TED talk by Barry Schwartz about the dogma in the modern society that the welfare of the citizens is maximized through maximizing individual freedom by maximizing choice. All these choices are so obstructive that they consume an incredible amount of our time. Should I eat now, or later? Where do I eat? Should I check this notification I’ve just received? Should I respond to it immediately, or postpone? What do I wear today?
People are fighting this in different ways. Some have all the same clothes, so that they do not waste time choosing what to wear today, for example Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. I know people who say “I never choose a restaurant, I always let others choose for me. When I am there I always eat the second meal from the list”.
This is something where brain reading may have a lean — just in time solution. This sounds as a sci-fi now, but by having continuous brain reading in place, we are able to implement passive cognitive-assisted recommendation engines. For example, the food can be delivered when I want it and when the system realizes I should take a 20min break at work. And the choice of the food can be automatic based on my subconscious preferences. When I want to go out to eat, I can have a restaurant recommended based on my experiences from the previous visit.
Although this is still a far future, passive recommendation systems based on our feelings are not impossible and may be a part of our lives. In this way, not only do we have bio-personalized recommendations, but we also spare time and, most importantly, do not waste our mental effort on, often equally beneficial, choices.
How close are we?
I wrote another blog on this subject, check it out here. In short, 2020 seems like as a reasonable horizon to meet first applications in mental wellbeing. Some of the major challenges in everyday systems (dry electrodes, analysis software, preprocessing techniques and emotion detection algorithms) are being solved increasingly and we are close to meet the first everyday brain wearables soon. The other two applications will still need some time to develop, as they rely on the collected brain data and training machine learning engines. We at mBrainTrain are actively working in this space, but I am also impatient to see what other teams have under the table.
Thanks to Jovana Nikolic.