Let’s start with the basics. The majority of humans experience the universe through a jumbled up mess of signals gained through five organic sensor arrays -- aka our senses. This messy clamor of sensory syntax combines into a solid chunk of flesh coax which pumps reality into the heuristic pattern recognition Wetware -- otherwise known as our unfeasible clever and inconveniently heavy monkey brain.
And that’s “it” really. That right there is our reality. Everything we’ve developed, overcome or imagined since scrambling out of the primordial ocean has our sensory reality as a humble beginning point.
What is Brain hacking?
But of course, that isn’t quite “it” at all. Because we humans aren’t all that happy with the steady marching cadence of impulse to react. We’re not content with that. We want the experiential equivalent of syncopation. We want jazz.
In fact, it’s probably fair to say that as a species we’re innately not content with the plodding march of evolutionary progress. We’re wired to want more; whether that’s sex, money, delicious cheesy snacks or just the general spiciness of being alive. The common denominator is that if we like it, sooner or later one of our kind is going to invent a clever, smart way to get more of it.
Not everyone is going to agree with this one, but there’s a solid case to be made that the critical thing that sets us apart as a species on this planet aren’t our gigantic brains or our handy dandy opposable digits: it’s the overriding impulse to acquire. In almost any pursuit you can imagine, from learn a new business to populating this earth with smaller, more incontinent versions of ourselves, the general rule of thumb is that the most desirable outcome is the one generating “more good stuff for me.”
Which is a fairly roundabout way of leading into this notion of brain hacking. It’s a fancy term to be sure, but ultimately it’s referring to a very simple process. It’s about altering how our brains process information. It is the use of technologies and techniques to improve the cognitive tools at our disposal, so that we get better at getting what we want. Brain hacking, quite simply, is messing with our organic software to optimize our ability to acquire more cool, shiny stuff.
The Upside of Brain hacking
As we learn more about how our brain works, we’re getting better at creating optimal conditions for its function. Science is rapidly refining its understanding of the perfect nutrients for optimal brain function. Fish, fruit and grain in the right combination are proven to help our brains work better. Combined with cardiovascular exercise, you can objectively know (as in “know” it because of a bunch of credible research) that your brain will be sharper and faster.
As a species, we’re also developing a keener awareness of how to keep our brains fit and strong. New products are constantly entering the market with strategies for strengthening our cognition, our ability to learn and the rapidity with which we can process sensory inputs and act on them. Sure, some are banana oil. But a good number are built on real research and these are in a Gestalt process of continual refinement and iterative improvement.
Couple this growing self understanding with the development of amazing technologies like neurotechnology (that literally allow us to control the world with our thought processes via electrodes hooked up to AI algorithms and robotics) and we’re literally stumbling heading into a world which will be controlled first and foremost by how we think.
All this links into a much bigger concept of Transhumanism. We have it within our power to become greater than the sum of our genetic parts. The promise of brain hacking is that we can find a way to greatly expand our boundaries, far beyond what our meagre biological constraints should rightly allow.
It’s heady stuff (pun intended).
Its darker underbelly
Being a human has good points and bad points, and brain hacking is merely an extension of this. As we learn more about how to alter brain function, we’re also gaining increasingly sophisticated ways of manipulating one another. Take smartphones as the classic example. Companies spend vast sums on research and development to find ways to get humans addicted to a particular app or service.
Sure, the claim is often that it’s for our good. Any number of companies proudly talk about how their product will get you addicted to fitness or eating healthy or approaching life with a Zen calm. But all these good intentions don’t alter the fact that these techniques can be used for less than benevolent purposes as well.
Whether we mean to or not, we humans are in the process of creating tools specifically designed to alter the thoughts, feelings and actions of other people. To imagine this can only lead to desirable outcomes is the height of naivety.
Brain hacking is neither Utopia nor Dystopia
Which brings us to the heart of the issue. Brain hacking is neither an overwhelmingly good or bad thing. It’s an extension of this whole “walk upright and think good” experiment we call humanity.
Fire meant we could cook meat and save hours out of every day gaining sufficient nourishment. It also puts us at eternal odds with our natural environment. The printing press meant an explosion in knowledge and understanding. It also meant our big human ideas were suddenly able to collide more destructive than ever before.
Brain hacking is just a new chapter in the syncopated sashay of our species to ever more nuanced ethical, moral and existential complexity. There’s good and there’s bad. And there always will be.