How to Upgrade Your Brain
“How do I upgrade my brain?” In an ever more inhuman world, ever more humans seek answers to that question. But the right answer depends on what you mean by the question. If by “upgrading” you mean upgrading the nervous system according to its own needs and functions (my expertise), your answer would be a recalibration program, which looks a lot like yoga or dancing, involving very little note-taking or technology.
But if by “upgrade” you mean what most people and most scientists mean, which is becoming better at productive activities — memorizing, multitasking, getting stuff done — then your answer could be found in a new book about neurohacking: “Smarter Tomorrow” by Elizabeth Ricker, the founder of NeuroEducate.
The Elusive Importance of Sleep
This book hails individualists, early adopters, “quantified self” experimenters, NeuroTechX hackers and free thinkers with the idea that proactively seeking higher intelligence and more efficient cognition will make one’s life better. But “peace through productivity” is a contradiction for nervous systems that didn’t evolve to be productive or smart.
So, “Smarter Tomorrow” is only the second-best possible book on upgrading brains, awaiting agreement on how they work. But it is still worth owning for the writing, the science and the scientific method alone. I can imagine no better, more actionable summary of modern brain science.
The Book: “Smarter Tomorrow”
Ricker’s writing is likable in all kinds of ways: nimble, accessible, insightful and funny. The graphs, summaries and takeaways are copious and clear. Her research is expansive and well synthesized, spanning pretty much everything brains need: nutrition, sleep, exercise, diet, emotional health, daylight, friends, motivational tricks. I already knew some of the tricks, like using biofeedback to resynchronize breath and heartbeat, but others — blue light replacing caffeine — took me by surprise. She waves the banner of “evidence-based science” more proudly and successfully than anyone, making this book a fair reflection of published scientific results.
Her upgrade targets are psychological concepts like executive function, emotional self-regulation, learning/memory and creativity. Her neurohacking tricks are based on well-established neuroplasticity principles (which I’ve also written about) and are justified by peer-reviewed experimental studies across the gamut of experimental neuroscience, including test batteries, neural recordings, MRI and EEG. (The one missing strand of scientific support, information mathematics, is the strongest of all.)
“Smarter Tomorrow” is two kinds of manifesto. At the most personal level, it promotes acceptance of neurodiversity and scientifically-informed self-help. That personal vision is the most personally inspiring to me. To implement that grand vision, Ricker’s book also provides a technical manifesto explaining self-experimentation of the plodding note-taking variety — including how to use a scientific notebook. She offers practical advice to collaborate with fellow neurohackers, to self-document, to seek medical advice, to allow time for reflection, all the way to providing creeds and checklists for the reader to try.
Fortunately, Ricker applies a wonderful inventiveness to the paradoxes of performing tests on oneself, especially those (like placebo tests) which involve tricking oneself as the subject. For example, the book even contains templates for measurements I thought were impossible, such as monitoring improvements in one’s own emotional regulation. In that same practical vein, Ricker dedicates whole chapters to how to choose a goal, how to motivate yourself, how to validate and track your progress. I almost wish I were the type to use such tests myself — they seem so good.
All of Rickers’ advice is as good and clear as it gets. Her book reflects current psychology and neuroscience almost perfectly. But from those sources, it also inherits a few key faults.
Two Authors’ Stories
Ricker passionately defends neuro-diversity by telling of her grade school reading teacher, Ms. Lecto. Her teacher’s personal confidence and attention saved young Ricker from a life of remedial classes (she ultimately got degrees from Harvard and MIT, and this book is the best explanation of experimental design I’ve seen yet). There is magic, Ricker asserts, in individual diversity and detail — magic that can help us help ourselves.
My life has a similar story with a similar message. I was never good at doing math, only at intuiting answers and sanity-checking them in multiple independent ways. After college, I took four years off and then began a very difficult graduate program (physics) in a very difficult place (Caltech). I was doubly behind my brilliant classmates at doing the math-intensive problems sets and tests we had to pass.
Enter my savior in multiple ways, Professor Kip Thorne. First, the mechanics and gravitation ideas he taught us gave me wonderful mathematical tools with names like “eigenmode” and “multipole,” tools that I only recently discovered connect vibrations in the human body with data processing the brain performs. One such weird shape, “quadrupole waves,” makes up the gravity waves Professor Thorne spent his career looking for. (He received the 2017 Nobel Prize for finding them.)
His quest was not evidence-based. There was no evidence then for gravity waves, only Albert Einstein’s mathematical prediction from a hundred years ago that they could and must exist. By believing math was true, evidence or not, Thorne inspired me to do the same.
He also encouraged us students not to grub for grades in his class but to focus on creative research. I acted on those twin suggestions in my dissertation by using ever-true math to illustrate that neuroscience made a major goof: They didn’t know at all how neurons work. Neuroscience insisted then (and still mostly does) that the pesky noisy crackling in their beloved neural data is just noise, because it sounds like noise. So, neuroscientists average it out, blurring and removing the crackle to improve the signal they seek and ultimately publish.
Unfortunately, the mathematics of bandwidth says that “noise,” in fact, contains most of the brain’s information. Timing details always carry more information than averages. That’s how details work. In her story of learning to read, schoolgirl Ricker needed to manage her own learn-to-read process, which required managing more moment-to-moment details than her classroom permitted. Fortunately, the tutor, Ms. Lecto, provided young Ricker the freedom and bandwidth her nervous system needed, through both challenge and trust. In the story, Ricker’s academic career was saved by personal attention, autonomy and fast feedback. That is, by interactive neuromechanical bandwidth, the mathematical foundation of all trust.
That “bandwidth principle” has been my career. I once published a research paper provocatively titled, “Fine Analog Coding Minimizes Information Transmission,” using simple math to make a simple point. When one “does the numbers” on bandwidth, one finds that yes, “slow and careful” reduces uncertainty, but the slow part causes more damage to information flow than the uncertainty part helps. So, counterintuitively, “quick and dirty” actually increases information flow.
Likewise, in computer science, every database or printout call slows down real-time speed. Optimized code never audits itself. Taking notes slows you down. And so on.
Ricker knows this. Self-testing, she points out, only proceeds as fast as its slowest step. Her “laggard” example is a memory-enhancement supplement that takes months to kick in, slowing self-experimentation to a crawl. At the fast end, she offers self-tests only 15 minutes long, deliberately accelerated to speed your neurohacking quest. But that gesture proves the basic limitation of any method of self-experimentation, tracking and monitoring: Tracking hobbles the very biofeedback it is supposed to enable.
The trend that higher-bandwidth biofeedback produces better (stronger and more generalizable) “brain upgrade” benefits is obvious in hindsight in the book. Ricker’s childhood experience with Ms. Lecto had the highest possible interactive bandwidth of two human nervous systems coupled in real-time. That interaction had a correspondingly high impact on her nervous system. Of the solo therapies Ricker describes, the very best are exercise and yoga, which have the highest bandwidth recalibration (i.e., feedback) paths possible because no tech slows them down. Of the technological therapies, the best provide biofeedback directly from a relevant bio-vibration (say heart-rate-variability) to the low-level sensory system (say via a tone) without selecting, editing or quantizing.
Relative to those continuous, fast-changing tones, 15-minute, multiple-choice tests are yet a thousandfold lower bandwidth and don’t produce the same life-changing results, nor very generalizable results. The problem with “cognitive performance” as a measurable goal is that it takes so long to measure but is so narrow. Helping the nervous system from the start by knowing in advance what it needs works better and faster.
That’s how placebos work, as Ricker masterfully explains. A brain’s main job is as a “prediction engine,” anticipating and sculpting micro-vibrations into macro-vibrations, and experience into motion. A placebo of whatever sort is a (deceptive) information stream consistent with, and thus supporting, a chemical or surgical intervention. The placebo in the famous experiment was fake, but the algorithm of associative self-consistency is how prediction works in the non-deceptive real world, for which nervous systems evolved.
That means expecting success (via faith in God or via “Bayesian priors” in math) is necessary for predicting well in any brain or algorithm, period. Second-guessing slows you down. As every athlete knows, confidence and flow work best in real-time. “Flow,” as Ricker describes, is the ultimate state of the nervous system. That is neuromechanically true, which makes flow useful in life. Flow is what nervous systems were born for. Flow is ultra-high bandwidth physical operation, but it only works in person.
At the clunky end, ultra-low bandwidth tasks include memorizing, thinking, testing and auditing. Anything categorized, anything symbolic or abstract, and anything called a “task” or a “decision.” Or anything employing digital technology, which messes up precise timing nervous systems rely on, and also compresses the sensory/motor interface enormously. Anything with interruptions (multi-tasking itself is a sin against nervous systems). Basically, most “cognitive enhancement.”
The Natural Test
The gold standard of human nervous system function is real-time inside bandwidth, rather than outside getting-stuff-done results. So, the natural test of any upgrade intervention, whether from “Smarter Tomorrow” or elsewhere, is simple. Do I get better results using this (meter/electrode/test) for an hour versus an hour doing something equivalent with my body and/or another human being, no technology involved?
My contention based on undisputed laws of information flow through space and time, and easily testable by Elizabeth Ricker’s protocols, is that in hour-for-hour straight comparisons against technological interventions, native real-life human collaboration will provide higher bandwidth and better results than tech every time. The placebo principle will be crucial to human success, in that subjects must be motivated to out-do technology and must believe that they can. That sounds like the ultimate battle, competing against machines on the home turf of our own bodies. A real fun game, with high stakes.
*[The articles in this column present a set of permanent scientific truths that interlock like jigsaw pieces. They span physics, technology, economics, media, neuroscience, bodies, brains and minds, as quantified by the mathematics of information flow through space and time. Together, they promote the neurosafe agenda: That human interactions with technology do not harm either the nervous system’s function, nor its interests, as measured by neuromechanical trust.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.