Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

Design Your Brain. The Possibilities are Staggering.

Written by: Steve Helms Tillery

The human future as a design space – what does that mean to you?

You hear a snap in the underbrush, and suddenly you are wide awake.   Your senses are tingling.   Your eyes wide open.   Your ears reaching out around you to find the source of the sound in the darkness.   Your breathing sounds like a roar.   The hairs on the backs of your hands feel the slightest puff of air.   Your fingers wrap around the handstock of your gun.    You slowly and quietly click the night vision goggle into place.   You goose your SensAmp unit to enhance your decision-making skills, to speed your reactions, and to calm your thinking.   Then you sit, and you listen, and you watch, and you wait.

You are immersed in technologies, each of which extends the boundaries inherent in your body.   You can see where you wouldn’t otherwise.  The gun allows you to project your physical capabilities further from your body.   The non-invasive electrical stimulation unit drives just the right amount of arousal to put you at the peak of your performance curve.  

That’s a fantastic vision that most of us will never get to experience, and yet all of us, in many profound ways, are continually immersed in technologies that extend our capabilities.  Some we take utterly for granted.   Our eyeglasses and our hearing aids settle into our self-image as if we were born with them.  Others are a bit more remote, although no less profound: at the moment I’m sitting on a 787 Dreamliner flying over the heartland, going far more miles in a few short hours than I’d otherwise be remotely capable of achieving.

The best designed of these technologies settle right into our nervous system, and become not just extensions of ourselves, but a part of ourselves.   This is one of the key strengths of nervous systems – probably one of the reasons they are so successful.  They adapt.  Our brain recognizes the advantage to treating tools as more of us:   after all, we use tools to expand our capabilities, and that would never work if our brains couldn’t capture that expansion by changing how it thinks of our bodies.   There are in the brain multiple representations of the body, the homunculi



 Model of a motor homunculus.  Parts of the body are sized according to how much space the brain gives to processing information to control that part of the body.  Natural History Museum, London.


 Our hands get a special place in several of these homunculi, and these specialized representations of our hands make possible all matter of intricate manipulations of our environment, such as typing away on my keyboard.   What if I give you a rake, and ask you to use that rake to reach out beyond where you might normally?   In monkeys, doing this induces striking changes in the way the brain represents the hand.   The brain comes to include the rake as part of the monkey’s monkunculus.   No doubt the same happens to our homunculi as we use tools.

Adaptability is central to viewing the nervous system as a design space.   Like all design, there are constraints we have to understand.   What are our design goals, and what is presently preventing us from achieving those goals?  Our visual system has evolved to very effectively pluck out key elements in visual scenes:  lines, curves, colors, shapes, faces.  The visual system achieves recognition of these features and integrates them into a seamless perceptual whole in the blink of an eye.

And yet we don’t naturally perceive everything.   We don’t see colors outside the range of photoreceptors in the retina:  infrared and ultraviolet lie just outside our perceptual abilities.  Clearly, perception of these colors is not biologically impossible:  many animals have evolved uses for these perceptions.  But alas it’s a lack in us.   However, we are smart, and we can use electronics to shift the wavelengths at which, say, infrared light is transmitted to the eyes, shifting it into the range of our photoreceptors.   That’s a design choice. Likewise, our ability to discern fine detail is limited by our acuity, which in turn is limited by the density of photoreceptors in the retina.   If we require higher visual acuity, we can achieve this by magnifying images before they get to the retina.   Another design choice.

What if we want to improve attention?   We know that attention is reliant on the neuromodulator norepinephrine – essentially adrenaline for the brain.   We know that in order to achieve ideal performance, concentrations of norepinephrine in the cortex need to be tightly regulated.   Some people are high level performers, always managing to keep their system primed.  One thing they probably do is keep norepinephrine at a remarkable balance in the cortex, at the peak of the arousal/performance Yerkes-Dodson curve.   The rest of us have to wait for those moments of high performance like “flow states” and hope that we can stay in that state through critical times of high demand.

Ah, but neuroscience has taught us that it is possible to have some impact on the release of norepinephrine by stimulating particular nerves which have quick access to brainstem modulating centers.

So here is a design principle:   identify the key concentrations of norepinephrine required for optimum performance.   Achieve that with carefully placed electrodes.  Deliver electrical stimulation in just the right form.  Attention becomes a design space.

And what if we can expand on the adaptive capabilities of our nervous system?   What if we can improve our ability to learn and master new challenges?  To respond more effectively to new threats and situations?  To incorporate new tools into our repertoire?  Each small step is a new modification to us.   To who and what we are.    Learning can be another brain design space.  By mastering the control of learning and adaptation, we can change who and what we are.  That’s the real new form for uploading knowledge into our nervous systems.

The brain may be a mystery, but we know enough about it to start treating many key elements of cognition as a design space.  Our nervous system, although deeply interconnected, is also deeply modular.   We already have good ideas in many cases about what processes happen in which modules.  We are continually learning more about it.

That will be a golden key to thinking of the nervous system as a design space.   We have already provided many of the items described for the soldier above, and we will provide more.   Let us proceed with caution, but let us indeed proceed.   The possibilities are staggering.


About Steve Helms Tillery 

Steve is a neuroscientist at Arizona State University who is particularly interested in how the brain learns to use sensory information in the control of skilled motor tasks. As an undergraduate, Helms Tillery studied psychology at ASU while on a music scholarship. He then moved to the University of Minnesota to study neuroscience under John Soechting and Tim Ebner, where he examined sensory processes underlying kinesthesia of the arm. He followed this with a postdoctoral fellowship at SUNY Health Science Center in Syracuse under Peter Strick, working on cognitive processing in basal ganglia and cerebellum. Eventually he returned to ASU to study neuroprosthetics with Andrew Schwartz. He has remained as a faculty member at ASU, where he uses neuroprosthetics to examine how the brain uses sensory information to control movement.  In his efforts, he participates in studies using both human subjects and nonhuman primates. As part of his appointment as a Lincoln Professor of Neural Engineering Research and Ethics, Helms Tillery also leads conversations to help determine how research resources can be marshaled to best provide lasting value to society.