Savant for a Day
June 20, 2003 4:17 PM   Subscribe

Savant for a Day! NYTimes journalist Lawrence Osbourne becomes a guinea pig for a University of Sydney's professor's mind-enhancing device based on the theories of autistic "Rainman" cognition with interesting results.
posted by skallas (27 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Very interesting stuff indeed - thanks for posting it! I am personally a bit dubious about the purported ability of TMS to reliably enhance selective cognitive function; this is a pop science article, after all, not a peer-reviewed paper.

Also, from what I know of TMS (we have a machine in the lab next door in Cambridge), it is not exactly a delicate machine. The area of the brain affected by the magnetic waves is necessarily not very specific, and the deeper into the brain you stimulate, the more power is required and the more general the effect. Given what little we know of the brain, 'activating' billions of neurones at a time could frankly have any or no effect, so I'm quite dubious that we could really use TMS, as it is now, to any reliable and useful effect.

However - there's a lot we don't know about the brain and if these results make it into a decent journal then they'll definitely be worth a second look.
posted by adrianhon at 4:40 PM on June 20, 2003


That's really interesting. I'm sort of an extropian/transhumanist at my core. But, I don't know how comfortable I'd be having this procedure performed on me. It just seems like there're some things with which it isn't very wise to play.

Of course I never really got into most drugs either, so I guess I'm a coward when it comes to stuff like that.
posted by willnot at 4:41 PM on June 20, 2003


This stuff is astonishing. Imagine a future where you can flick a switch and decide to temporarily lose your social abilities in exchange for having a perfect photographic recollection of what you see, or be a genius mathematician or artist, with no permanent ill-effects. I believe this will happen.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 4:42 PM on June 20, 2003


Imagine a future where you can flick a switch and decide to temporarily lose your social abilities in exchange for...

Um, consider your audience, Pretty_Generic...

(I kid!)
posted by rushmc at 4:47 PM on June 20, 2003 [1 favorite]


The third and fourth dogs are quite Thurberish.
Maybe he managed to activate his thurberal lobe.
posted by carter at 4:56 PM on June 20, 2003


Or (upon reflection) some part of his memory.
posted by carter at 4:58 PM on June 20, 2003


carter, when I first saw the drawings I noticed that the last two are cartoon caricatures of dogs, not photorealistic drawings. In fact I'd say number two is pretty photo realistic, but a bit out of proportion.

> Or (upon reflection) some part of his memory.

According to the theory he should be able to pull any bit of info from his brain, so when asked to draw a dog it made sense to draw a dog like how dogs are drawn not how they are in real life. I wonder if being asked to paint a dog would give completely different results, e.g. photorealism, breed features, etc

Also, he drew cats according to the article. I wonder why they ran the dog drawings.
posted by skallas at 5:05 PM on June 20, 2003


so when asked to draw a dog it made sense to draw a dog like how dogs are drawn not how they are in real life

Very interesting, skallas, I think there's a lot to that. Although I guess we'd have to accept that the image at the top of the article was from a genuine test, and not something rustled up, Jayson-Blair-fashion, just before the deadline.
posted by carter at 5:23 PM on June 20, 2003


POKE &HFFE2,&H02: POKE &HFFE3,&H41
posted by angry modem at 5:41 PM on June 20, 2003


Carefull with your addressing, angry modem. I don't want you hitting *my* brain.
posted by namespan at 5:44 PM on June 20, 2003


Neat article, thanks. It'll be interesting to see where this reasearch leads.
posted by dejah420 at 9:14 PM on June 20, 2003


Having read Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, I have little enthusiasm for Focus.
posted by SPrintF at 10:08 PM on June 20, 2003


There have also been experiments where they focus magnetic waves at a specific area of the brain to treat depression. According to the article, the results are very similar to electroshock sans the trauma. Sorry, I don't remember the source.
posted by phewbertie at 12:01 AM on June 21, 2003


There was a project to buy our president a Playstation 2, so why don't we start another project to buy him a Magpro?

(/cheap shot)
posted by LimePi at 12:05 AM on June 21, 2003


If this technology was available in consumer form, I would be a very happy/unsociable person. The dog/cat drawings error I noticed, which is odd as the professor deliberately picked cats as a reference. Another thing I noticed is that the most professional drawing was labeled After, which makes me wonder how long does the overdose of radiation last? If for a moderate period of time (few hours), we might see some interesting uses: overprotective parents using it on their children the morning before the SAT, or a political group enveloping an opponent's room with socially/critical thinking detrimental waves.
posted by Darke at 6:02 AM on June 21, 2003


Reminds me of Flowers for Algernon.
posted by Fofer at 6:58 AM on June 21, 2003


I wanted to post the same FPP but with a different spin... if you assume that the TMS people are correct, and that their technique can alter your perception of reality, then it stands to reason that it can alter the perception of *yourself* as well, doesn't it? If that's true, then it puts metaphysics and other such questions on a very different footing; if your perception of yourself (i.e. your metaphysical reality, your Soul if you may) is dependant on purely physical processes (such as brain structure and EM interference) then we cannot really claim as a species that we are qualified to investigate metaphysical questions, no?

Of course, the very questioning of metaphysical questioning should also be dismissed with the same logic, so I am going to stop arguing just about n
posted by costas at 11:42 PM on June 21, 2003


Will individuality be revealed as merely an electrochemical conceit, a bartender's trick, an artifact of the mix?

Autonomous choice: fact or fiction?
Can we handle the truth?
Stay tuned.

I, of course, am blessed with an autonomous uber-soul; a shimmering, glistening thought balloon which follows me everywhere, pulsing with unique me-ness; my insights, my personality, free of causal history, uncorrupted by environmental influence, transcendent of space, time and meddlesome science - me wonderful me, the only me there is, thank you very much.

But as for the rest of you...
posted by Opus Dark at 3:06 AM on June 22, 2003


if your perception of yourself (i.e. your metaphysical reality, your Soul if you may) is dependant on purely physical processes then we cannot really claim as a species that we are qualified to investigate metaphysical questions, no?

how do you figure that? Or maybe more important, what exactly do you mean by metaphysical?

Will individuality be revealed as merely an electrochemical conceit, a bartender's trick, an artifact of the mix?

why use a demeaning tone of voice? WIll individuality be revealed as a complex organization of chemicals and patterns? I think it already has been. It's not a trick, though; it's an amazing interconnected network of matter...
posted by mdn at 5:31 AM on June 22, 2003


mdn: I don't really have my mind set on this; as my post implied (and Opus pointed out as well) the train of thought I followed is nearly paradoxical, so that argument requires some fine splitting of hairs...
posted by costas at 7:03 AM on June 22, 2003


we cannot really claim as a species that we are qualified to investigate metaphysical questions

Interesting observation. Drugs are the same thing. I would say that so long as your able to ask "do I exist" then your able to explore metaphysics.
posted by stbalbach at 8:05 AM on June 22, 2003


Stbalbach: that's kinda where I was coming from. Like Descartes said, cogito ergo sum: asking whether I exist or not requires thought and a perception of self. But, if these TMS guys are right, and my perception of reality is dependent on brain wiring and function alone then, doesn't that mean that maybe we can never understand our true nature because our perception is limited by our wiring? I know it's a stretch, and I know it's paradoxical upto a point, I just find it an interesting argument...
posted by costas at 8:47 AM on June 22, 2003


costas, I'll go with your doubts. I think metaphysics only ever relates to us - it's how we see ourselves, how we see the world, and how we like to theorise the relationship between the two. As it's ego-centric, I don't think that we can understand our "true nature" (as if from the outside). A thought experiment: if Martian researchers landed here today, in order to study hom sap, would they go down to the bookshop and buy books by Descartes, Kant, Parsons, Foucault, Baudrillard, et al., and translate them into Martian, and take them back home as explanations, or would they make measurements based on their own metaphysics? If the latter, which would be the 'correct' explanation - ours, or theirs?

So I think metaphysics is a questioning of our place in the world - but it can never lead us to 'the truth.' It can however lead us to an explanation of the truth relevant to us and which we can use in our daily lives.

So I guess I agree with both you and stbalbach. However, my argument is also a mental construct from within my own perspective, using words and concepts I've acquired as a result of living at a particular place at a particular time: caveat emptor!
posted by carter at 9:19 AM on June 22, 2003


if these TMS guys are right, and my perception of reality is dependent on brain wiring and function alone then,

How else could it work? You think using your brain, and your brain is wired up and functions in a certain way... isn't your perception of reality dependent on these factors no matter what?
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:38 AM on June 22, 2003


Most people are still devoted to a Cartesian dualism that insists there is a homunculus inside our head pulling the levers. (Which is really only begging the question. If consciousness is caused by a homunculus in our mind, what causes the homunculus to be conscious.)

Minsky, Dennett, and others have theorized that what we perceive as consciousness is merely a number of unconscious mental "agents" doing what they do. And what we perceive as self is simply another one of those agents, not directing anything at all but simply claiming credit for what other agents have already done. The self is, in other words, the Pee-Wee Herman of the brain: "I meant to do that!" There is actually experimental evidence for this; split-brain patients concoct elaborate rationalizations for something one half of their brain has been tricked into doing without the knowledge of the other half.

It is so perverse and counterintuitive that most people reject it out of hand. But then, so are many things science has discovered in the fairly recent past. Things get heavier as they go faster? All life is defined by a digital code? Light is both a particle and a wave, and can tell which you expect it to be in any given experiment? These things are weird, but true. The strangeness of a theory does not have any bearing on its truth.

I predict that the extraction of "the ghost in the machine" from the Western conception of consciousness will be long and painful. But it's gotta go if we're ever to arrive at the truth.
posted by kindall at 11:14 AM on June 22, 2003


Maybe I got it wrong, but it seems that a part of the theory here is that, although we only use a small part of our brain at any one time, turning on (or boosting) extra sections means shutting down (or suppressing) others?

So, you could be a mathematical genius but forget how to tie your shoes. Or, what happens if the part of the brain that gets shut down to allow you to calculate immense formulae in an instant is the part that controls your heart?

This area of science is both incredibly fascinating and unbelievably scary all at once. The potential for both good and evil is difficult to comprehend.
posted by dg at 7:06 PM on June 22, 2003


Well said, kindall.
posted by rushmc at 4:45 AM on June 23, 2003


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