The following will appear on Oct. 31, 2014 in The Psychedelic Policy Quagmire, edited by J. H. Ellens and T. B. Roberts. Publisher: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.
When I think about psychedelics, I find it handy to think about their idea-context. Of course ideas about psychedelics exist in any number of contexts, but one I find particularly helpful is the idea I call “neurosingularlity,” particularly the “Neurosingularity Project.” The Neurosingularity Project is the discovery, construction, and development of useful abilities in all mindbody states, both natural and synthetic. As the name immediately suggests, it derives from Ray Kurzweil’s adaptation of the scientific word singularity. In his use, the singularity names a hypothetical future emergence of greater-than-human super intelligence through technological means, and he adopted singularity for the title of his 2005 book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. He posits a time not long from now when computers will surpass human thinking thanks to nanotechnology, genetics, artificial intelligence, and similar technological breakthroughs.
But as his subtitle suggests, Kurzweil assumes that our brains and their biological information processing skills are static and will remain static while computers and electronic information processing surpass our poor outdated brains. The technologies Kurzweil identifies as promoting the singularity, also have their implications for the human brain and mind. Neurosingularity posits a time when future human brains (and minds) will surpass ours of today. This gives us two parallel and mutually supporting singularities, Kurzweil’s computer-based singularity and Neurosingularity’s mindbody-based singularity.
This essay looks at a number of questions and opportunities that result. Rather than just enhancing current human thinking skills, is the neurosingularity also likely to increase the kinds and number of our brain-based information systems? Can we build: 1) better brains and install a greater variety of biological information processing programs (apps) in them? 2) More mindbody states? 3) More apps for the mind? Will some of them enhance current cognitive routines, while others create entirely new cognitive algorithms? What sources of ideas flow into the idea of neurosingularity? How might psychedelics contribute?
To begin answering these questions, we’ll see psychedelics contributing to human optimization. They’ll help lead us an invention path beyond scientific insights and treatment interventions to innovation. We’ll see them spread along consilience’s disciplinary scaffolding. Finally, we’ll see psychedelics as one psychotechnology among others in the new field of mind design. These discussions are by no means complete, but point to tantalizing fuller discussions.
Optimum-Functioning Tributaries to the Neurosingularity Project
The history of idea-flows into the theory of neurosingularity clearly stretch back at least as far as William James’s 1902 insight, “ …there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different [from normal waking consciousness] … definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation,” (1958, 298). Today scientific insights into the nervous system are being published almost daily. Multistate Theory helps organize our thinking about the Neurosingularity Project.
Among current tributaries to the Neurosingularity Project are: 1) multistate theory, 2) transhumanisn, 3) psychedelics, and 4) the human potential movement.
Mindapps’ Home in Multistate Theory
According to multistate theory (Roberts 2013), a significant and undervalued human trait is our ability to produce and use a large number of mindbody states. (Sometimes these are confusingly called “states of consciousness”). Multistates theory’s first point: There is a vast and unknown number of mindbody states, each with its respective kinds of cognitive and non-cognitive abilities.
Second, we achieve these mindbody states by installing a variety of psychotechnologies in our minds—mindapps—methods of producing mindbody states. Mindapps include martial arts breathing routines, neurofeedback, transcranial brain stimulation, hypnosis, meditation, among many others. Thanks to a burgeoning catalog of psychotechnologies, thinkers are no longer trapped into using only their ordinary default state and its siblings, sleeping and dreaming.
Third, human abilities reside in (are outputs of) their respective mindbody states. Our ordinary default state abilities’ have analogs in other states and may change from state to state. Recognizing this opens a general question for the biological and social sciences: How does/do ____ vary from mindbody state to mindbody state? For example, How does spontaneous remission vary from mindbody state to mindbody state? (Roberts 1999). Do mystical experiences—psychedelic and otherwise— boost the immune system? (Roberts 2013). Some abilities may appear rare and unusual to us only because they don’t reside in our ordinary, default state. Thus, our usual ideas of what is possible and what is impossible are derived from our default state and apply only there.
In summary: digital apps are to devices as mindapps are to brains.
Psychotechnological mindapps can help fulfill the transhumanist goals of extropy:
[The] extent of a living or organizational system’s intelligence, functional order, vitality, a capability and drive for improvement …perceptual progress, self-transformation, practical optimism, intelligent technology, open society, self-direction, and rational thinking…removal of political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to continuing development…Growing in healthy directions without bounds,” (More &Vita-More 2013, 5).
The extropic goals can all be assisted by the broad range of psychotechnologies including psychedelics. Transhumanism’s sparse knowledge of psychedelics is one of the great puzzlements about this movement. I guess it is due to the Singlestate Fallacy—the error of assuming that all worthwhile thinking takes place only in our default, ordinary mindbody state (Roberts, 2013, 123-124).
It is primarily due to psychedelics that I became interested in mindbody states, formulated multistate theory, and invented the ideas of mindapps of neurosingularity. The Psychedelic Future of the Mind (Roberts 2013) focuses on psychedelics as one practical psychotechnology with a wide range of psychotherapeutic applications and diversified intellectual innovations. In addition to psychedelics’ more popular influences on, say music and the visual arts, psychedelic psychotechnologies contributed to the birth of computer revolution (Markoff 2005), produced solutions to scientific and professional problems during experimental research (Fadiman 2011). Enhancing Mullis’s visualization skills (Horizon 1997), they provided the insights for his Nobel Prize in biology for inventing the PCR method (Mullis 1998) and may quite possibly helped Crick visualize the DNA molecule (Rees 2004, Fadiman 2011, 4). Psychedelics are enriching the humanities (Roberts, this book), and strengthened cognitive studies (Roberts 2013), mapped the human mind in greater detail and provided access to it in greater detail (Grof 1975/2009). Currently psychedelics are advancing research in mental health (Winkelman and Roberts 2007), reforming religion (Roberts 2012, Ellens 2014), and informing philosophy (Lemmens et al, 2015).
Current psilocybin research from the Johns Hopkins Medical School’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit is collected on the website of the Council on Spiritual Practices. Published in top-ranked journals, it epitomizes the high scientific standards of current psychedelic research. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and its Bulletin cover a wider range of psychotherapeutic and adjacent topics (www.maps.org). The Erowid site extends the coverage to practically all psychoactive drugs.
Who will follow these leads? And who will access the forms of intelligence that reside in psychedelic and other mindbody states? It remains to be seen.
The Human Potential Movement and Positive Psychology
When we compare extropy with a description of the Human Potential Movement, it’s clear that they share remarkably similar optimistic goals for humanity with HPM being a precursor of transhumanism:
The Human Potential Movement (HPM) arose out of the milieu of the 1960s and formed around the concept of cultivating extraordinary potential that its advocates believed to lie largely untapped in all people. The movement took as its premise the belief that through the development of “human potential”, humans can experience an exceptional quality of life filled with happiness, creativity, and fulfillment. As a corollary, those who begin to unleash this assumed potential often find themselves directing their actions within society towards assisting others to release their potential. Adherents believe that the net effect of individuals cultivating their potential will bring about positive social change at large. (Human Potential Movement, 2014).
Many people in the human potential movement took inspiration from Abraham Maslow, “This is then a chapter in the ‘positive psychology’ or ‘ortho-psychology,’ of the future in that it deals with fully functioning and healthy human beings, and not alone with normally sick ones” (1962, 69). With its emphasis on, “the positive, adaptive, creative, and emotionally fulfilling aspects of human behavior” (Compton & Hoffman 2013, 1), the Twenty-first Century’s positive psychology carries on the goals of Twentieth Century’s human potential movement.
Voluntary Control of Internal States
Why have the transhumanist and human potential boats passed like ships in the night? Transhumanist memes come primarily from the physical, biological, and computer sciences, while the human potential’s tend to ignore the physical and computer sciences, overlap somewhat in the biological sciences but also have roots in the social sciences and humanities. Transhumanism almost neglects the latter two. Historically, this concept gap is at least partially due to the bad reputation that psychedelics had in the late Twentieth Century.
In my view, this shows up via a series of conferences sponsored by the Menninger Foundation and Clinic. Once a year in the 1970s, Menninger and the Transpersonal Institute co-sponsored a small invitation-only conference at an isolated church camp near Council Grove, Kansas (Fadiman 1969, 1970). Officially “The Conference on Voluntary Control of Internal States,” it was known familiarly as “Council Grove.” The conference intentionally published no proceedings, and the press was barred.
An official reason for this was that the meetings provided a safe venue for the first presentations of “raw” ideas before they were sufficiently matured to be presented at professional meetings or in publications. These tryout sessions allowed researchers to stretch their speculations and receive professional feedback in order to refine their ideas. Cutting edge topics included biofeedback, meditation, Native American and Eastern psychologies, alternative medicine, and other topics that were considered fringy at the time and which one didn’t discuss at serious scientific gatherings. Among the topics were psychedelics. My guess is that another handy reason for the scanty reports from Council Grove was that the organizers and participants needed a free agora of ideas away from the scurrilous ire of the press, politicians, and professional watchdogs.
In the Twenty-first Century with similar goals and outlooks on life, transpersonalists and transhumanists are well-suited as colleagues, notably in psychedelics. With a Lancet article titled “Research on Psychedelics Moves into the Mainstream” (Morris 2008), Scientific American’s “Hallucinogens as Medicine” (Griffiths & Grob 2010) and with a popular text in positive psychology now including psychedelics in its current edition (Compton and Hoffman 2012), transhumanists and other forward-looking scholars who fail to examine psychedelic leads are simply missing the boat.
Multistate theory, psychedelics, transhumanism, transpersonal psychology, and the human potential movement can all contribute to their mutual fulfillment and to the Neurosingularity Project. I hope “optimal-functioning” groups who I’ve omitted won’t feel slighted. I readily admit that this section is a sample, not a full catalog.
A Wider View of Our Minds
Although The Psychedelic Future of the Mind focuses on the psychedelic family of psychotechnologies (Roberts 2013), a complete Neurosingularlity Project expands the perspective to explore all known mindapps for moving toward superior, multistate brains and eagerly anticipates other psychotechnologies yet to be discovered and invented. In this context, the word brains, of course, is too restrictive, but it will serve as a shorthand for our whole nervous and hormonal systems, as well as other aspects of our bodies.
Unfortunately most people investigate only one or another psychotechnology and do not see their specialized work or that of others who specialize in other psychotechnologies as integrated into one larger model of our minds. However, multistate theory and Neurosingularity Project will help them recognize that all mindbody tributaries flow into a much grander river. With human existence going from the physical sciences through chemistry, biology, psychology, the social sciences, cognitive studies, the humanities, and philosophy (Lemmens et al 2015) a complete view of humanity has to recognize that inputs at all these levels interact with the others. Each discipline and selective intellectual group contributes its favorites; a full understanding of what it means to be a human and our possible human futures requires the full range of inputs.
As this chapter speculates, future developments may result in both more efficient current brains and redesigned ones, possibly even ones with new neurotransmitters, new receptor sites, and more refined structures. Below we’ll sample some science-based leads, wonder about their mindbody futures, and speculate about where their progress might lead us.
The Three I’s of Progress— Insight, Intervention, Innovation
Before looking at markers and milestones along the Neurosingularity Project, it helps to gain historical perspective on how science-based discoveries develop into innovations. When we look at the road that science and its applications take, they start with insights (science based or lucky), then they are applied to overcoming current problems (e.g., illnesses). Next advances are extended to complex interactions with other applications, and finally to inventing uses and products that have not existed yet. If psychedelics and other mindapps follow the typical three “I’s” —insight, intervention, and innovation—how might they influence the Neurosingularity Project as the years roll by?
In scientific fields, basic discoveries typically occur first. But by no means does this always happen; skilled craftsmen blended metals when they were still thinking about the spirit of iron and the soul of copper. Some shamans make experienced-based claims about plants. But in our age and culture, scientific insight generally starts the ball rolling. For example, with new genetic instrumentation, techniques, and discoveries coming on fast, the previously slow-moving rivulet of genetics improvements via, say cross pollination research, is now a rushing torrent. Mapping the human genome, the functions of its genes, cellular genetics, and the onrush of other discoveries are advancing both science and its technology.
The article “New Pathway for Neuron Repair Discovered” illustrates the insight and intervention steps in research (Penn State 2014). After summarizing insights from their research (a method for improving dendrite growth in damaged fruit fly neurons), the authors mention possible long-term interventions in treating stroke. Of course if this pans out, it will be a significant advance, but the article also illustrates the lack of the third, innovative stage. Might their technique lead to further innovations in brain and mind development?
We can’t blame them for omitting this. It is not part of the current scientific practice. It is a role of neurosingularity to think about what innovations this could lead to.
Following scientific discoveries, we see the applied stage of the journey. Clinical genetics is a specialty of clinical medicine with particular attention to hereditary disorders, including birth defects, developmental problems, autism, epilepsy, short stature, and many others. A bioengineering example of insight leading to intervention (and thence to innovation) comes from nanotechnology. At the University of Southern California engineering professors built a synthetic synapse, which functions similarly to a brain synapse. The development of nanotubes and ways to manipulate them was the previous insight step. The team leader, Professor Alice Parker, looks forward to the intervention stage, expecting the technology might provide prosthetic devices for brain injury. Her team is already thinking about the innovation stage. “The next step is even more complex. How can we build structures out of these circuits that mimic the function of the brain, which has 100 billion neurons and 10,000 synapses per neuron?” Next, she says, is building brain plasticity in the circuits, but a whole synthetic brain or even a brain area is decades away (University of Southern California 2011).
In an increasingly multidisciplinary world, maybe we are seeing the birth of a new field: nanoneuroengineering. On a more wildly science-fiction note, will it become possible to design genes that build nanostructures or nanofactories that produce genes or proteins (Drexler 2013)? Because they work with similar-size objects, somehow or other, these fields seem destined to hybridize. While these insights and interventions show regular progress, from a multistate perspective, they are additionally important because they are milestones toward inventing mindapps of the future.
Beyond scientific insights and medical interventions—as wonderful as they are— a neurosingularity perspective asks, “How can we use these discoveries to upgrade the standard mind, to install better skills, to invent new mindapps?” This third stage I-question goes beyond current givens to imagine new ranges of possibilities. Psychedelics can help here.
BOOSTING STEM. In my opinion psychedelics’ ability to increase the power of problem solving is their greatest neglected potential, a neglected innovation. In an experimental study involving scientists, technologists, engineers, a mathematician-engineer (attention STEM enthusiasts!), and designers, Harman and his co-researchers found that a structured session with mescaline resulted in solutions to 44 previously intractable problems (Harman et al 1966). Mullis’s insight that lead to the PCR technique (1998) and Crick’s possible insight into the structure of DNA (Rees 2004) are newer and additional Nobel Prize winning proof of concept. Jim Fadiman’s The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide (2011) is the best report of this study and even includes excerpts from the subjects’ personal reports. He was on the experimental team and was a co-author of the 1966 study (Harman et al).
My guess is that psychedelics increase the power and access to out-of-the-box cognitive processes that pick up previously neglected relationships and assembles them with known conscious information in novel ways. This might be similar to accessing the level of detailed information up a level or two from what savants tap into (see below). It might be on a level above theirs yet below the level of our usual conscious thinking. Whatever the process, psychedelics plug into its power.
While scientists hold the human mind in great esteem for its scientific reasoning, discoveries, and applying them to human problems as well as improving life, multistate theory carries mind-progress a step further: the mind itself is a construction. It is a variable, more than that, an experimental variable. New ways of using it become possible—synthetic mindbody states, ones that have not existed before. The concept of consilience helps get a grasp on the enormity of the Neurosingularity Project (Roberts 2012, 2013). Consilience has a goal of linking physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, the social sciences, and even philosophy and theology.
In 1998, biologist Edward O. Wilson, author of two Pulitzer Price-winning books on biology and recipient of other honors and awards, challenged the scientific community to build a multidisciplinary scaffolding of ideas that integrates all branches of knowledge, “by linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation” (Wilson, 1998, 8). He named his book and project Consilience.
Psychedelics are a natural for this major league intellectual project. They are naturally interdisciplinary. They link topics from the neurochemistry of our brains to Greek mythology and film criticism. Studies at the Johns Hopkins Medical School link psilocybin given under the right conditions to personal meaningfulness, sacredness, open-mindedness via mystical experiences (Griffiths 2006, MacLean 2011). Here is a clear example of an input at one level (here chemical) producing outputs at others (personal values and personality). Thanks to psychedelics, questions such as, “How do biochemicals affect beliefs?” are open to experimental study.
Wilson recognized this, “Shamans preside over the taking of hallucinogenic drugs and interpret the meaning of the serpents and other apparitions that subsequently emerge (1998, 72). He adds, “[The shaman’s] drug of choice, widely used in the communities of the Rio Ucayali region, is ayahuasca [pronounced eye-uh-WAHS-ska], extracted from the jungle vine Banisteriopsis.” Illustrating consilience, he follows this with, “The sacred plants, which have been analyzed by chemists, are no longer mysterious. Their juices are laced with neuromodulators that in large doses produce a state of excitation, delirium, and vision” (73). Wilson recognized that chemical input yields cognitive output. Thus, the full range of mindbody states is a significant characteristic of our minds, and worth studying. Certainly, for any model of the human mind to be complete, these kinds of cognition must be included. This includes digital, electronic modeling.
What does consilience have to do with optimizing human development, to fulfilling the Neurosingularity Project, and employing mindapps? Optimal human development has to include every level, and mindapps’ multilevel nature helps link the levels. As the markers and milestones in the next section exemplify, causation runs downward as well as upward, is emergent as well as reductive (Sperry 1983, 116-119).
Markers and Milestones
(TOOLS FOR MIND TINKERERS)
Way signs to the neurosingularity are appearing almost daily. I am not claiming that researchers are on the verge of transforming our brains and nervous systems yet, but some of these markers, milestones, and discoveries like them are probably the parents and grandparents of future mindapps. To keep up on these advances, I recommend a free subscription to ScienceDaily’s “Mind and Brain News” emailing list (www.sciencedaily.com). For keeping up on psychedelics, they also have a news list titled “Illegal Drugs and Controlled Substances News” as well as many others. The KurzweilAI.net Daily Newsletter is another free boxful of gems.
With significant discoveries about the brain and nervous system coming along weekly, even several times a week, I don’t see how it would be possible to create a full electronic model of the human mind (Kurzweil 2014). It would become outdated almost daily, and programmers would have to write algorithms for every new discovery as it appears and integrate them into existing models. An example of how difficult this is comes from “Brain Works Like a Radio Receiver.” This is not about picking up sinister signals from the outside the brain —sorry, paranoids, no tin hats needed. “Brain circuits can tune into the frequency of other brain parts relevant at the time” the researchers reported (Raboud University, 2014). Any model of the brain before this would have to be redone.
Although the examples we’re looking at in this section are exciting in their own right, here we value them as progress markers along the neurosingularity trail. They indicate the progress of their underlying sciences and techniques.
Keeping an eye out for contributions to the Neurosingularity Project, we’ll start our hike down the consilience trail at the top. Although based on facts and fact-based theory as Wilson requires, this section is speculatively high-flying, so read it with a pinch of salt—or whatever you like to flavor your mind with.
Philosophy, History, and Sociology of Science
Although annoying, especially to scientists at the lower levels, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1964) reformulated the history of science by claiming that major advances came primarily not from the gradual accumulation of discoveries but from shifts in social events and cultural attitudes. Scientists who saw science only as the accretion of facts and theories to summarize those facts didn’t like to see their efforts apparently diminished as part of a wider social process. According to Kuhn, the overall direction of science depends on who gets funded, what gets published, and how one gets tenure or is promoted. He doesn’t deny the importance of ordinary, day-to-day science—“normal science” as he calls it— but pointed out that a dominant paradigm determines what are and aren’t facts. Anomalous observations (things that aren’t supposed to occur according to the current paradigm) are typically ignored or explained away; major change doesn’t occur until the old scientists die or retire and younger ones take over.
Are psychedelics taking us through a paradigm shift now? Since the 1960’s, would-be psychedelic researchers have felt excluded from funding, publication, and promotions, not by evidence-based policies but by political and cultural decisions, within their disciplines as well as in society at large. Are the old singlestate, anti-psychedelic guys retiring and/or dying now? Are younger scientists taking up the cause? At psychedelic research meetings, there’s a sort of barbell distribution of ages, a lot of grayhairs who probably joined AARP several decades ago, a scattering of midlife, active researchers, and a predominance of young researchers, doctors, interested grad students, and laypeople.
One reason alternative medicine is called “alternative” is that it by in large works top down, while most medicine is bottom-up surgery or pharmacology. The top-down examples of self-healing and spontaneous regression fit the neurosingularity agenda because many of them of use mindapps —both psychedelic and other. Because alternative medicine often uses various mindbody states (Freeman 2009), the question, “How does healing vary from mindbody state to mindbody state?” naturally occurs, and mindapps provide research methods to examine these claims.
Numerous anecdotes and some studies attest to the hypothesis that unusual healing often occurs during altered mindbody states (Roberts 2013, 88-101, Freeman 2009). It is well known that stress and negative affect cause (or are associated with) ill health. Does the opposite occur? People who report being healed often report exceptionally strong positive emotions (a common indicator of altered states). Overwhelming positive affect is a standard characteristic of mystical experiences (Hood 1975), so if we can produce mystical experiences experimentally, perhaps we’ll have a clue to moving this type of healing from spontaneous to a standard clinical treatment.
We can test this hypothesis: “Do Psychedelic-induced Mystical Experiences Boost the Immune System?” (Roberts, 2013, 88-101). Unlike most medicines, the proposed effect is not a straightforward pharmacological drug effect. It is the psychological effect of the mystical experience; the psychedelic mindapp is used merely to produce a mystical mindbody state. The word mystical as it is used in psychology and religious studies denotes a specific cluster of subjective experiences (Hood 1975), not its Halloweeny or spooky sense in ordinary language.
What about the level of thinking? It clearly is cognitive, and certainly our neurons are active when we think, but recent research shows that cognition’s effects go even further down the consilience structure. The University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds provides an example of a cognitive-behavioral mindbody app that affects physiological processes (University of Wisconsin 2013). In “Study Reveals Gene Expression Changes with Meditation” Dr. Richard Davidson’s group found that molecular and genetic changes following a day of intensive mindfulness meditation occurred with experienced meditators but not with an untrained control group of non-meditators. The practice “altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pre-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.” Hypnosis, imagery, and progressive relaxation are other common mindapps. Remember Sperry’s “emergent causation” (Sperry 1983, 93-96). Typically, biological scientists tend to look at upward effects, while psychologists and alternative medicine practitioners tend to look at downward effects. As the Wisconsin study shows, a full story requires both.
Placebo, Ability not Effect
It is time to question the logic of the so-called “placebo effect.” In medical research, a placebo or false treatment is selected because it will have no effect on the outcome; however, about a third of the people receiving the placebo improve. This is explained away as the (mis)named “the placebo effect.” Attributing an effect to something that has no effect is illogical. Of course, it isn’t the placebo that is causing the effect; it’s something the patient/subject does, perhaps from an expectation or feeling relaxed because “something is being done”. It is worth noticing that a thought and its accompanying emotion can boost health. What we are actually noticing is an ability to heal oneself. I like to nickname it the placebo ability (Roberts 1987). Because it is something people do—whether voluntary of involuntary— naturally the multistate question pops up, “How does the placebo ability vary from mindbody state to mindbody state?” The mindapps of alternative medicine pile onto this question (Freeman 2009).
Physiology. Bigger Heads
This is not a prediction, only a speculation, but the speculation is not without some grounding. Craniosynostosis is the premature closing of the skull in babies (affecting about 1 out of 2,500 in the U.S.). Surgeons and engineers at Emory University and the Center for Pediatric Healthcare Technology in Atlanta are developing a treatment for craniosynostosis and have developed a model in mice that may be adapted someday to children. In one study they discovered genes that influence fusion in the skull. In another, they designed a gel that can be injected into the gap between skull bones to slow down their premature closing (Georgia Institute of Technology 2011).
Currently, of course, their work is in hopes of eventual intervention. A neurosingularity question emerges, “Will it move into an innovation stage to allow natural brain growth to continue a while longer in the children of the future?”
Another clue to this possibility already comes from another genetic discovery. One of the major differences between humans and chimpanzees is that human skulls continue to grow for a longer time than chimps’ skulls. According to a study published in Nature, “How the Penis Lost its Spikes: Humans Ditched DNA to Evolve Smooth Penises and Bigger Brains,” researchers discovered several regulatory genes that turn other genes on and off are active in chimps but turned off in humans (Corbyn 2011). Gill Bejerano, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Stanford University School of Medicine, and his colleague, David Kingsley, looked for genes that existed in chimps but were missing in humans. They found a DNA deletion in humans that was located near a gene that kept brain cell growth in check in chimps. “The deletion of this DNA may have contributed to the development of larger brains in humans,” he said. In the future, will this lead to a way to build still larger brains? Will it be combined with turning on the genes that control nerve growth?
Big-headed scifi creatures from outer space do not seem so odd now. Maybe they’re premonitions of our own descendants.
Crossing the Blood-Brain Barrier
However, the blood-brain barrier has to be contended with in any attempt to chemically influence neurons in the brain. This filtering device screens out many molecules but lets through those that the brain needs such as water, oxygen, and glucose. For one hundred years medical and biological researchers have been stumped by the problem of getting chemicals, especially large ones, into the brain. However, researchers at Cornell University have discovered a molecular key—adenosine—to open the blood-brain doors (Carman et al. 2011). Treatment, as usual, will take precedent over functional innovation uses, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and brain cancers are first in line. But after that, what? Will adenosine-derived mindapps open the way to carrying addition nutrients to neurons, building better brains, and even carrying new psychoactive molecules?
Working along a different line, researchers at Columbia University’s departments of bioengineering and radiology have developed another way to open the blood-brain barrier using ultrasound, as documented in “Noninvasive and Localized Neuronal Delivery Using Short Ultrasound Pulses and Microbubbles” (Choi et al. 2011). Until recently, the use of relatively strong ultrasound has often caused collateral damage. The new treatment uses much smaller and shorter bursts. After diffusion through the blood-brain barrier, the inserted drugs not only affect cell membranes but can penetrate all the way through to the cell’s nucleus. Here too, Alzheimer’s is the first target for treatment, but will this method along with the adenosine method also open a passage to the brain and innovative psychoactive drugs and new psychotechnologies for delivering them? Will these contribute to future mindapps?
On a more science-fiction note: When scientists discover the genes that control nerve growth and develop the ability to regulate them, will they be able to control this natural process in order to produce more brain cells? Will the Neurosingularity Project then move from brain repair and enhancement to enlargement or even brain design? Of course our current skulls are full already, but delaying the hardening of our heads by a year or more and allowing them to expand even by as little 1/64th of an inch would create more room for additional cells.
Neurosciences. Inventing Neurostructures and Neurotransmitters
When we look to chemistry and materials engineering and realize what they have accomplished in our daily lives, startling questions emerge. Just as experts in these fields synthesized previously unknown compounds and materials, will neurogeneticists improve on our brains not just by overcoming their current shortcomings and diseases with interventions but also by empowering them with additional growth or complexity? Are such things possible? When scientists discover the suites of genes that produce our neurotransmitters, will they be able to turn them on and off, even design new neurotransmitters?
Is increased brain plasticity possible (Thompson 2014)? The New Scientist’s online article “Learning Drugs Reawaken Grown-up Brain’s Inner Child” speculates that the drug valproate (currently used for mood disorders and epilepsy) may reopen adult brains to critical periods for learning, similar to the learning potential in children’s brains. An early study that tried to teach adults perfect pitch showed some promise. Perfect pitch is considered learnable only at a very young age. Whether valporate approach works or not, the topic of voluntarily controlling plasticity is receiving attention.
As we would expect from the 3-I model of research progress, most studies are done with cures in mind and the earliest are done on, say, fruit flies and mice. But when we look at them from a neurosingularity perspective, we can wonder whether they might eventually develop into early leads to upgrading normal brains and minds. For example, the dendrites of a neuron are input pathways from other cells. “A New Pathway for Neuron Repair Discovered” (Penn State University 2014) reports that much to their surprise, researchers there found that after they trimmed off cells’ dendrites, the cells didn’t die. “Within a few hours they’ll start regrowing dendrites …”. Their immediate medical use is likely to be for strokes. But if we take the author’s comment out of context and extend it to a neurosingularity context, might this discovery some day enhance general cognition, “…if scientists learn how dendrite regrowth happens, researchers may be able to promote this process” ?
Just as physicists have formed synthetic elements —ones that don’t occur in nature— and chemists have enriched our lives with synthesized compounds, biologists are engineering biological processes and building blocks in new ways, called appropriately “synthetic biology” (2014). Besides the interventions related to repairing organs and even growing replacements, they are inventing variants of existing plants and animals. A 2011 article “Harvard Scientists to Make LSD Factory from Microbes” (Guardian) describes how biologists have worked with yeast to adapt it to make lysergic acid, a precursor to LSD. This process is the first of several steps in producing LSD, and the full sequence is not complete yet, but this advance could be a first step to complete LSD production. Using these techniques, will new psychoactive plants become new mindapps.
Genetic engineering also hints at processes that may one day be adapted to reshape our brains and minds. For example, using gene transfer from one species to another, scientists have introduced a gene for scorpion poison into cabbage, one that is harmless to humans but kills cabbageworms. They have engineered the digestive processes of a pig so that its feces will contain less phytate to cut down on algae blooms when the sewage gets into water, and they have developed chickens whose eggs contain cancer-fighting medicines (Roslin Institute 2007).
More recreationally, by introducing a gene for a green fluorescent protein (GFP) from a jellyfish into a rabbit (Philipkoski 2002) and into a cat (Mayo Clinic 2011), they have produced animals that glow in the dark under fluorescent light. The GFP is now in labs worldwide where it is used in numerous plants and animals, including flatworms, algae, E. coli, and pigs. Is glow-in-the-dark marijuana in the offing?
Does genetic transfer point to an opening for transgenic scientists who have an interest in psychedelics? Might they transfer genetic material from psilocybin mushrooms into, say, blue cheese mold? Similar opportunities for transfer may exist for genes from marijuana or ergot and other psychoactive plants. The mindapp possibilities are mind boggling.
You can keep up with the neuro part of this fast moving neurosingularity field of bioengineering at http://syntheticneurobiology.org/. To quote from their website:
Your brain mediates everything that you sense, feel, think, and do. A challenge for humanity is to understand the brain at a level of abstraction that enables the engineering of its function — so that it becomes possible to understand how the brain computes, and also to treat intractable brain disorders. We are inventing new tools for analyzing and engineering brain circuits. For example, we have devised, often working in interdisciplinary collaborations, ‘optogenetic’ tools, which enable the activation and silencing of neural circuit elements with light, 3-D microfabricated neural interfaces that enable control and readout of neural activity, and robotic methods for automatically recording intracellular neural activity and performing high-throughput single-cell analyses in the living brain. We distribute tools as freely as possible, and are using our inventions to enable systematic approaches to neuroscience, revealing how neurons work together in circuits to generate behavior, and empowering new therapeutic strategies for neurological and psychiatric disorders. (Jan. 12, 2014)
Some mindapps might use these techniques to measure their effects; others may incorporate them as part of their technologies.
The confluence of genetics and the other rivers of scientific information haven’t happened yet in multistate studies, but when we look at the path that scientific innovation usually takes, it’s just a matter of time. The sending cell of a synapse, its neurotransmitters, the receiving cell, and its internal cascade of relayed messages are all made according their respective genetic blueprints. So the next step is to control the genes that construct neuronal cells by turning the appropriate genes on and off. As “Functioning Synapse Created Using Carbon Nanotubes” hints (University of Southern California 2011), this opens the door to medical intervention and treatment. Will genetic control then become tools for genetic inventions?
Geneticists are now identifying genetic errors that result in dysfunctional diseases (insight), and will soon increase interventions, perhaps by activating genes to help produce more (or less) of a neurotransmitter. Then, addressing problems regarding the structure of the cells that form a synapse is next. These cells may need more vesicles to squirt out their neurotransmitters or more (or fewer) receptor sites on the receiving cells. While not easy tasks, the possibility of adjusting current processes to accomplish them fits within the usual road of progress in the medical sciences. Perhaps a genetic solution to producing more nerve growth factors will be needed to help overcome a disease or injury. Perhaps chemicals that can activate the appropriate genes can be introduced into our—or future generations’—brains.
Instead of using only electronic information technology—or biology hybridized with IT—to augment human intelligence, milestones in genetics are advancing us down the path toward producing better human brains and other extropic and human potential goals.
Will innovators move beyond turning genes on and off to designing new neurotransmitters and new receptor sites to accept them? Will they dare to? When they discover how to orchestrate nerve growth factors or invent new ones, what then? What will happen if scientists activate the genes to produce additional nerve growth? Does a recent study with salamanders indicate this is a possibility (Berg et al. 2011)? It’s a long way from salamander brains to human brains. Or is it? Perhaps this research will lead to the ability to temporarily control the regulatory genes that control the on/off switch for nerve cell growth.
Currently pharmacology is the river with the greatest flow of new mindapps. Its tributary of psychedelics is just one of many contributing to its gigantic flow. In the late Twentieth Century and early Twenty-first Century, psychoactive pharmacology has moved beyond naturally occurring substances to molecular design. Shulgin and Shulgin’s TiHKAL (1997) and PiHKAL (1991) each list several hundred psychoactive molecules, their synthesis, and their subjective effects. The Erowid website (www.erowid.org) reports up to date on the many new substances being invented.
Appropriately enough, the synaptic gap between nerve cells is a major focus of pharmacological attention. Dendrites, which receive information from other cells across synapses, used to be thought of as mere transmission lines, but now dendrites are seen as active information processers. “Suddenly, it’s as if the processing power of the brain is much greater that we had originally thought,” reported Dr. Spencer Smith from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC School of Medicine 2013). Some chemicals speed up or increase the amount of neurotransmitters that the sending cells squirt into the gap to the dendrites. Others slow down or decrease the amount. Still others accelerate or decelerate the scavengers that pick up neurochemicals and recycle them for reuse. On the receiving side of the gap, another group of medicines affect how neurotransmitters plug in to the receiving cells, others how the receiving cells react. The discoveries of how our synapses work and other discoveries about our nervous systems are great advances in biology and medicine, and humanity is better off thanks to them. A report on this research calls dendrites “Mini-Neural Computers.” If so, then these cells open up a world of bioprogramming and who knows what future mindapps.
Historically and culturally most psychedelic use was, and still is, one MINDAPP plant at a time. “Archeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World” lists more than 180 studies of historical and prehistorical use of psychoactive plants stretching “well back into the Pleistocene” (Merlin 2003, 295).
This field is catching on. There is now an Anthropology of Consciousness group within the American Anthropological Association, and anthropologists are increasingly asking about what mindapps various cultures use, how they understand them, and what parts they play in their cultures. For example, the earliest date for the Ritual Black Drink in the Cahokia mounds in southern Illinois and related sites was recently pushed back to approximately AD 1050. The beakers associated with it may show its use extended through much of the Eastern woodlands and documents extensive trade as its ingredients did not then grow in what is now southern Illinois (Crown et al 2012).
The Physics of Brain Training
The consilience levels do not stop at biology or chemistry. One of the joys I find in multistate theory is hearing about new psychotechnologies and mindapps as they are discovered and invented. I didn’t expect physics to provide any multistate news, but am happy to have been wrong. Magnetoencephalography (MEG), transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and opsins are four new physics-level mindapps. Taking advantage of our brains’ ability to learn, adapt, and grow—its plasticity—these techniques offer ways to select and activate the parts we want to strengthen. Meanwhile, more sites of brain skills are being located with more precision. For example, our brains’ so-called “arbitrator” decides whether to let us act impulsively or after careful consideration. “But how does the brain know which system to give control to at any given moment?” (California Institute of Technology 2014). John O’Doherty and his research team at the Caltech Brain Imaging Center have identified the location (insight) and hope that their discovery will eventually treat brain disorders such as drug addiction, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (intervention). Again from a neurosingularity approach (innovation), will everyone’s decision making skills be open to improvement if this area were strengthened? Four physics-using mindapps provide clues to this possibility and offer a tentative “yes,” … MEG, TRNS, TMS, and opsins. Each has already improved other skills.
MEG. “This means you can observe your own brain activity as it happens,” said Dr. Sylvain Baillet from the Brain Imaging Center at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (McGill University 2014a, b). The process is not just observing a selected activity of one’s brain on a computer screen but of learning to control that part. The person sits in chair-like machine that has a large compartment of computer and brain-scanning equipment overhead. Learners watch a colored dot on a computer screen with the goal of making it change color say, from dark red to bright yellow. They do this by activating the selected region of their brains. Without consciously knowing how they are doing it, when the selected part of the brain becomes active, the color changes, and over time they learn to control the color, thus learning to control that part of their brains. Strangely, they can’t say how they do it.
Over time, activation increases the blood flow and/or neural activity making those regions stronger. When they make the dot change color, people can train themselves to strengthen what those brain parts do. As you would expect, neuropsychiatric conditions and neurological problems are the current target uses. But how about selecting the parts of the brain that do useful tasks, solve relationships, hit a golf ball, or makes decisions? Neurologists know a lot about which parts of our brains do what. Will MEG brain training become the ultimate teaching machine of the future?
TMS. Originally used for patients who had failed to benefit from antidepressant medications, transcranial magnetic stimulation research is looking to use as “an effective strategy to improve cognitive function.” (Women’s & Infants Hospital, 2012). A medical professional places power magnets around the patient’s head. It has worked for schizophrenics. “TMS can have lasting effects on brain circuit function because this approach not only changes the activity of the circuit that’s being stimulated, but it also may change the plasticity of the circuit, i.e., the capacity of the circuit to remodel itself functionally and structurally to support cognitive functions,” according to Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry (Elsevier 2013).
I wonder whether magnetic techniques hint at a problem for designing and building a computer-based model of the human mind. Strong magnetic fields are the very bane of electronics, so it’s hard to visualize a computer that will react to magnetic fields the same way the cells of a human brain do (Müller-Dahlhaus & Vlachos 2013). Of course, modeling would use an algorithm rather than actual magnetic fields, but it would have to take into account the decreasing effects of a magnet field by the square of the distances from the magnet and have to include molecular, intracellular, and intercellular effects as well as their effects on the several forms of plasticity.
TRNS: Wouldn’t it be exciting to read, “Electrical Brain Stimulation Helps People Learn Math Faster”? In a study from Oxford University, an article with this title reported another type of brain stimulation, transcranial random noise stimulation (Snowball et al 2013). “Five consecutive days of TRNS-accompanied cognitive training enhanced the speed of both calculation and memory-recall-based arithmetic training.” Calculation improved (a deep-level cognitive process) as did memory (a shallow-level process).
OPSINS (not an acronym). Opsins are light-sensitive proteins. “Optogenetics is a technique that allows scientists to control neurons’ electrical activity with light by engineering them to express light-sensitive proteins. Within the past decade, it has become a very powerful tool for discovering the functions of different types of cells in the brain” (Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2014).
Magnetism, sound, light … when we look at MEG, TRNS, TMS, and Opsins, we gain an appreciation for how basic physics is informing the neurosciences, bioengineering, artificial intelligence, and medicine. What other physics-using mindapps are possible in the future?
These multidisciplinary fields illustrate the general assumption that advances in one field can hybridize with advances in others. By itself but increasingly by orchestrating with other discoveries, every insight, multiplies the number of possible interventions and combinations. After first looking at some intriguing additional markers and milestones, we’ll pick up the idea of blending psychotechnologies to invent new mindapps and propose mind design. But first, some leads don’t fit into the consilience scaffolding but are just as fascinating on their own.
To a large degree, current discussions of augmenting intelligence proceed by extending the footprints of computer-based artificial intelligence (Englebart 1962). However, enhanced cognition and intelligence with psychedelics has already occurred (Roberts 2013, 135-145), so a full consideration of amplifying intelligence has to add the discovers we’re just read about. When intelligence is defined as “mental self management” (Sternberg 1988), selecting a mindbody state from a wide repertoire of mindapps is a kind of mental self management, clearly higher level executive cognition than using only one state and its resident abilities. Because selecting a mindapp to produce a mindbody state is prior to using that mindbody state’s specific abilities, I like to think of the selection process as metacognition.
Express Your Inner Savant
The savant syndrome provides a strange clue worth following. In April 2011, I attended a bioethics conference in Madison, Wisconsin, sponsored by ProMega Corporation. Dr. Darold A. Treffert, a specialist in savant syndrome from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, described a puzzling case. A surgeon who was struck by lightning via a telephone line just as he was hanging up became a musical savant, while continuing to function normally, including being able to practice surgery (Treffert 2011). This raises the question of whether savant abilities are available to nonsavants if we could develop a mindapp to access or install them. A clue comes from Australia.
In 2009, a topical issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences was dedicated to the savant syndrome; it included an article by Allan Snyder from the Centre for the Mind in Australia. He proposes that savants “have privileged access to lower level, less-processed information” (Snyder 2009, 1399) in our brains. In the section “Inducing Savant Skills Artificially” he speculates that “such skills might be artificially induced by low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation” in normal adult brains.
Snyder’s whole abstract is exciting reading, not only because it may be a clue to hidden human abilities but also because it illustrates how psychotechnological leads come from unexpected sources.
Abstract. I argue that savant skills are latent in us all. My hypothesis
is that savants have privileged access to lower level, less-processed
information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and meaningful
labels. Owing to a failure in top-down inhibition, they can
tap into information that exists in all of our brains, but is normally
beyond conscious awareness. This suggests why savant skills might
arise spontaneously in otherwise normal people, and why such skills
might be artificially induced by low-frequency repetitive transcranial
magnetic stimulation. It also suggests why autistic savants are atypically
literal with a tendency to concentrate more on the parts than
on the whole and why this offers advantages for particular classes of
problem solving, such as those that necessitate breaking cognitive
mindsets. A strategy of building from the parts to the whole could
form the basis for the so-called autistic genius. Unlike the healthy
mind, which has inbuilt expectations of the world (internal order),
the autistic mind must simplify the world by adopting strict routines
(external order). (1,399)
Snyder’s abstract meets several criteria of multistate theory. It proposes hidden abilities in our minds, suggests a psychotechnology to access them (transcranial magnetic stimulation), and it fits into the central multistate research question: How do human skills vary in savant mindbody states?
Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind (2012) provides a clue to what may be going on. He uses a model of our neocortex that posits six levels of information processing. It starts with simple sensory input on the lowest level. This information is assembled with more information at the next level up, and this process continues up to the sixth level. Most of us are aware of the top level only, but according to Snyder’s idea, savants are aware of the information at lower levels. Could neurosingularlity mindapps, or perhaps a recipe of mindapps, allow us to voluntarily turn savant-like abilities on and off?
At the most basic level of physics, experimenters have created synthetic elements. Synthetic chemistry is enriching human life with a cornucopia of synthetic materials. Starting with selective breeding and moving on to contemporary biological innovations, the life sciences continue their contributions to human welfare. But now synthetic biology is adapting biological processes to produce new varieties of life forms and to engineer non-life materials (Synthetic Biology 2014, Dexler 2013). Now it is time to move up another level of synthesis: synthetic mindstates. The notion of synthetic mind fits well within the history of scientific synthesis—synthetic elements, synthetic chemistry, synthetic biology, synthetic mind.
I hope that some day workers on the Neurosingularity Project will achieve psychological synthesis, inventing mindapps that install new mindbody states, resident abilities, and their respective biological information processing algorithms (Roberts 2013, 135-145).
When should scientists and scholars start considering synthetic minds? Now.
Generating Research Agendas
When the general multistate question is asked about these milestones, markers, and advances, researchers will generate a wide range of questions that deserve data-based answers. “How does (insert topic) vary from mindbody state to mind body state?”
Analogizing this further, we select the appropriate computer programs and device apps for whatever tasks we want to accomplish. Different programs for different purposes. Now, we simply transfer that perspective to mindapps and brains and ask, “What mindapp is best for this task?” Answering this question will take decades of research and, as with medicines, may vary from person to person. And, of course, “Can you design a better mindapp?”
Combinations, Permutations, and Recipes
Inventing new mindapps, chemicals⎯breathing skills, exercise routines, and so forth⎯is an open frontier. An even more innovative step is to combine psychotechnologies into new recipes, to orchestrate them into innovative series, to invent new mindapps and their synthetic states. An early psychedelic example of combining mindapps is Myron Stolaroff’s suggestion to use two psychoactive drugs to structure psychedelic sessions. Stolaroff was vice president for long-range planning at Ampex Corporation, one of the grandparents of Silicon Valley, where magnetic sound recording tape and videotape were developed. Stolaroff left Ampex to found the International Foundation for Advanced Study (IFAS) in Menlo Park, California. IFAS provided many of the first legal studies of the use of psychedelics for creativity and problem solving (Fadiman 2011).
In his book Thanatos to Eros Stolaroff proposes using MDMA first to see if a person is comfortable with altered mindbody experiences, and if so, starting a later session with MDMA to establish a positive emotional set prior to a second stage provided by LSD. Referring to his IFAS period, he reports, “The combination of MDMA followed by LSD proved an extremely effective one” (1994, 54–56).
This instance of combining mindbody psychotechnologies is both unusual and forward looking for its time because it proposed using two mindapps. A combination of meditation and psychedelics has been used far more often. In Psychedelic Reflections psychiatrist Roger Walsh reports that several spiritual leaders whom he interviewed found psychedelic sessions benefited from a prior “period of quiet and/or meditation” (1983, 117). According to “Buddhism and Psychedelics” a 1996 special topics issue of Buddhist journal Tricycle, psychedelic experiences stimulated many American to become interested in general spiritual matters and Buddhism particularly. This path often lead them away from drugs toward meditation and experiential religions. Where else might new sequences and new recipes for combining mindapps take us?
Without our recognizing it, the Neurosingularity Project has already started down the typical road from scientific insight and intervention to innovation. The points above mark milestones along this road. Current neurostudies are mapping the human nervous system, and its many complexities There is still a long and exciting way to go.
Existing psychotechnologies provide enough leads to keep generations of psychologists, biologists, and their many friends and relations busy. And the scope of the Neurosingularity Project will grow even broader as new mindapps are invented and imported from other cultures: each new mindapp multiplies the number of their possible combinations and sequences. When brain enhancement is added, the number of possible psychotechnology recipes and blueprints multiplies with each enhancement.
What should we call future mindbody inventors—crainial architects, head inventors, consciousness composers, neuroengineers, neuroartists, cognitive designers? How about mind designers? Thanks to current mindapps and ones yet to be discovered, the Neurosingularity Project’s future is endless.
This essay is elaborated from Chapter 12 of The Psychedelic Future of the Mind. Other chapters add background on these ideas.
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