Saturday, November 01, 2014

Augmenting free will

How new brain implants can boost free will – Walter Glannon – Aeon:

'via Blog this'

Aeon magazine has an interesting article up, which discusses a brain implant technology that restores normal decision-making capabilities to individuals with degenerative conditions such as, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The piece then goes on to speculate about the possibility of future implants "that can boost free will" in healthy individuals.

Short and very much worth the read.

My pick of enhancements for augmenting the cognitive wetware of human volition goes as follows:

Attention augmentation. The brain has several mechanisms of neuron arousal and desensitization that underlie our ability to focus in on one phenomenon out of many. That, and pay attention for a limited duration before losing interest. There are also structural features that play a role in this such as, essentially firewalling the decision-making prefrontal cortex so that only the most urgent neuron firing patterns elsewhere in the brain can engage with it. Boosting the ability to delay loss of interest in an activity or subject would give individuals a greater control over the content of their thoughts. The same would go for an artificial ability to focus intensely for superhuman durations.

Enhanced awareness. The brain generates varying grades of awareness. On the low end there is awake but incoherent. On the other, a heightened mindfulness of surroundings and immediate potential consequences found in performance artists, rescue works, soldiers, and some meditation practitioners. Being able to invoke mindfulness or hyper clarity on command could be interesting. That, or the narrow attention-to-detail of unthinking mechanical task engagement. Even more interesting, enabling simultaneous mindfulness and the kind of task-focus level that normally excludes awareness of one’s surroundings and the passage of time.

Improved working memory. Working memory is in many ways the RAM of the brain, though with several elements. Those include a phonological loop that holds small amounts of audio information and a kind of sketch pad in the visual cortex. Also, varying degrees of ability to quickly call up salient facts and personal experience from the semantic and autobiographical sub-systems of conscious memory. Plenty of room here for interesting tweaks and mods leading to improved decision making.

Enhanced emotion control. The brain has its various arousal and reward networks, such as, the dopamine feedback channel. These can and do go awry. Sometimes disastrously so. Implant technology has already come a long way in restoring mood stability for people with severe issues like clinical depression. For healthy individuals, an increased indirect or a novel direct control over these systems could grant a much more immediate ability to govern emotional responses. Something beyond the traditional means of consciously constructing a contrary perspective to modify a strong or persistent emotional reaction. Enhanced control over the very feelings that drive us to make decisions could prove to be a very popular technology. One with all sorts of potential benefits and pitfalls depending on the app.

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