Biomedicine

How Network Neuroscience Is Creating a New Era of Mind Control

It might come down to the same network theory that rules computer science and economics.

Complex networks form the backbone of modern society: the Internet, the aviation network, the pattern of connections between individuals. And more complex examples are constantly emerging—the way genes interact in cells, how information flows through the banking system and the ecosystem.

The more complex the system, the harder it is to control. Nevertheless, computer scientists, doctors, economists and the like exercise a modicum of control over many of these networks.

And that raises an interesting question: is it possible to exercise the same kind of control over the most complex network we know of: the human brain?

Today we get an answer of sorts, thanks to the work of John Medaglia at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a few pals who assess the discipline that is emerging at the intersection between network neuroscience and network control theory. “A critical question … is how to modulate a human brain network to treat cognitive deficits or enhance mental abilities,” they say. “We posit that network control fundamentally relates to mind control.”

The basic idea behind this kind of control is straightforward. Injecting energy into one part of a network should influence activity in other parts of the network.

In the brain, this kind of manipulation is already used in deep brain stimulation techniques, such as those used to Parkinson’s disease. This involves injecting energy into a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which is involved in movement. This then reduces impairment of movement.

A similar technique is also used for obsessive compulsive disorder, where people experience overwhelming urges to engage in repetitive behavior. This is often associated with unusual electrical activity in the brain’s fronto-striatal circuitry. Deep brain stimulation can normalize this activity and substantially improve quality of life.

Despite the success of these kinds of techniques, Medaglia and co point out that there are significant challenges in controlling other behaviors. One problem is that stimulation does not just influence one part of the brain but tends to cascade across many areas in ways that are hard to characterize. 

That’s why understanding the connectivity across the brain is an important future goal. This is the objective of the various “connectome” projects around the world: to map of the structural pathways across the brain.

And it is already beginning to suggest that the brain employs different control strategies. Each of these strategies are potential targets for mind control.

For example, neuroscientists think the fronto-parietal system controls our ability to switch between tasks. Curiously, this system is not strongly linked to other parts of the brain, but theoretical work has already shown that it appears to work by moving the brain into difficult-to-reach states along a kind of energy landscape. So one avenue for mind control might be to use energy injections to guide the brain through this landscape.

Just how this can be done isn’t entirely clear, but there are several technologies that have potential. These include transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses an external magnetic field to induce currents in parts of the brain, along with various implanted stimulators, which inject energy directly. Improving the resolution of this kind of energy injection is an important future goal.

No discussion of brain control would be complete without a mention of ethics. Medaglia and co spend some time outlining current thinking on this topic. They base their discussion on the four basic principles of medical and research ethics: non-maleficence, beneficence, justice, and the right to self-determination.

This is an area that will have to evolve as new techniques emerge. “As the science of mind control advances, it will be important to clarify acceptable control practices with respect to our fundamental nature and self-identity,” say Medaglia and co.

Another thought-provoking goal is to understand the link between neural control and psychological control. “The mapping between brain dynamics and specific cognitive processes will be critical to inform psychological (i.e., ‘mind’) control,” say Medaglia and co.

And therein lies a significant blind spot in this work—the role of information. The processes of the mind are clearly information-based. And much of psychology has focused on how information can change brain states. For example, changing a person’s emotional state with a trip to the cinema or by reading a book.

This is information-based mind control. And yet Medaglia and co do not mention these kinds of information-based effects.

Perhaps that is understandable. The role of information in brain processes is poorly understood. Neurologists do not even understand the neural codes at work in our brains.

Until they have that understanding and more, today’s techniques will seem crude. By comparison, nobody would attempt to fix a malfunctioning smartphone by zapping it with a current from a couple of electrodes. Nor would they repair a crashed website with a powerful external magnetic field.

In fact, only a tiny fraction of possible malfunctions of information technologies could be tackled in this way.

And so it is likely to be with the human brain. An information-based approach is likely to be much more powerful.

The link between information and mind is today poorly understood. If an improved understanding is one legacy from this kind of work, it will have been a significant step forward.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1610.04134: Mind Control: Frontiers in Guiding the Mind

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