Hacking the Human Mind: The Other 90% (Pt. 1 of 2)
Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.
“Can the Nervous System be Hacked?”, asks a New York Times headline? The article examines recent developments and ongoing research in peripheral nerve stimulation. To its credit, the NYT avoids the rampant sci-fi speculation all-too-common to biomedical research articles. Which is strange, because according to the Internet the NYT is supposed to reinvent itself for the digital age by turning into BuzzFeed. Guess the Grey Lady hasn’t gone full Upworthy – yet. Fortunately, blending fantasy with reality is what I do. So let’s get to it!
The meme of “hacking the human mind” fascinates me. While the idea of modifying humanity through clever tinkering has been around since time immemorial, it is deeply entrenched in 21st century popular culture. Human-hacking is frequently justified by the myth that humans only use 10% of their brains. If only a hacker could unleash that other 90% we’d be able to cure disease, boost intelligence, maybe even develop superhuman abilities. In a superhero-dominated Hollywood, “hacking the human mind” and/or “using the other 90%” is used as a convenient excuse for all sorts of ridiculously unrealistic abilities. In the real world of biology and medicine, hacking is used more as a workflow metaphor, encouraging loosely-organized cross-disciplinary teams instead of the rigid hierarchy prevalent in medicine.
In the first of a 2-part series on “Hacking the Human Mind”, I will focus on mythological and fictional influences on the concept of human-hacking. In a second half I will discuss the real-world implications.
Older than Dirt
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As I mentioned, the concept of “hacking the human body” vastly predates the concept of hacking. Since antiquity, numerous martial arts orders have claimed that their training does more than just improve physical fitness and coordination. In traditional Chinese belief, the body has a large number of “energy (Qi) gates” that can be opened by practice, meditation, and/or acupuncture. Variations on this belief are common in fiction, especially Anime. However, the Asian belief in opening the gates of the body is fundamentally different from “hacking”. Traditional Asian techniques draw from mysticism and spirituality, emptying the mind so that the spirit can take control. Hacking is about filling your mind with rigorous logic and calculation. While the outcome may appear “magical”, the process of hacking is strictly scientific. As in the NYT article, in order to control millions of neurons you start by studying 7 neurons at a time.
So what about hacking the body in the scientific tradition? The earliest Western version of “hacking the mind” dates back to 1937, when E.E. Smith and the Lensman series fought a galactic-scale war against aliens strangely reminiscent of Nazis. The Lensmen were genetically superior humans, the product of aeons of selective breeding for psychic powers. Using their Lens as a focus, they could conjure matter, negamatter (antimatter) and energy from their minds. Later on, DC Comics would popularize the concept of a galactic police corps with superpowers based on focusing their imagination through a small trinket. Both of these Western examples are still closer to “magical powers” than to science, although you could argue that there’s no meaningful difference at the galactic scale.
Into the Age of Hackers
Two Hiros and a Stark
The modern concept of “hacking the human mind” could be credited to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. People could contract the Snow Crash virus by viewing a computer graphic, causing them to lose much of their personality and become susceptible to mind control. This was explained by suggesting that ancient Sumerian was an “assembly code of the brain”, capable of re-programming humans on a fundamental level. The ancient sorcerer Enki created a “nam-shub” that prevented all other humans from understanding Sumerian. This protected them from mind control but caused human language to fragment into incomprehensible tongues, an event known as the Tower of Babel. Snow Crash is remarkable for equating the spread of information with that of a virus (in fact, people infected via computer would also transmit viruses in their bloodstream), over a decade before the phrase “going viral” infected the English language. The Snow Crash version of mind-hacking is remarkable for its negativity – hacking takes away your free will and doesn’t give you any superpowers. The characters with super-strength or super-speed got those the old-fashioned way: radiation exposure.
The idea of hackers learning the secrets of the human mind in order to gain supernatural abilities is much more recent than Snow Crash. As far as I can tell, the first major work to use this trope was Heroes (2006). Just like Snow Crash, Heroes featured a lovable hero named Hiro. (Yatta!) Mohinder was the first hacker-like character on the show, a geeky fellow who studied supernormals but didn’t actually have superpowers. But we all know that the dominant hacker of Heroes was the brain-dissecting villain Sylar. Sylar personifies the trope of hacker as a selfish, unpredictable criminal, hidden behind layers of secrecy. Like the victims of Snow Crash, Sylar could alter his biology/physiology simply by gaining information (in his case, studying the brains of other superhumans). Unlike a Snow Crash victim, Sylar could control the information that he gained from their brains, a truly gruesome method of increasing his power level.
No mention of human-brain-hacking is complete without mentioning Aldrich Killian of Iron Man 3. He invents the drug Extremis, which has the ability to cure disease, grant super-strength, super-speed, super-durability, and light yourself on fire, all with the small risk of exploding like an incredibly powerful bomb. How is Extremis so powerful? Well, Aldrich explains that he “hacked the human genome”, so of course it makes sense. At least, it makes about as much sense as Tony Stark’s arc reactor, and much more sense than Captain America or the Incredible Hulk. (let’s not get started on Asgardians…)
Less Strange than Reality
I hope you have enjoyed Part 1 of my article on hacking the human mind. In the second part of my article I will discuss the real-world effects of the “hacker ethos” on medical research and practice.