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Tuesday, 30 December 2008 10:32

Alice in Neuroland

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Alice in Neuroland

Can Machines Teach Us to Be More Human?

by Katy Butler

It is a rainy morning in early March. I am in a hotel conference room near MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, running a dressmaker's tape measure through the reddish blonde locks of a mildly anxious physician named Marcia Lipski. At tables all around us, assorted psychotherapists, MDs, and speech pathologists are clustered in groups of three, with laptop computers, electrical wires, plastic tubes of unfamiliar goop, and white Styrofoam heads bought from a wig-supply house and pasted with orange stick-on dots denoting various parts of the brain. We are in the midst of a training presented by EEG Spectrum and accredited by the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America in the fundamentals of neurofeedback: a hybrid of biofeedback, old-fashioned counseling, and cutting-edge brain science. Attendance is restricted, on the whole, to health care professionals.

The clinicians around me are attempting to integrate their 20th-century therapeutic skills with 21st-century electroencephalography (EEG) and affective neuroscience. Those who once aspired to be sages, healers, and wise women will struggle over the next few days to make sense of hertzes, thalamocortical relays, frequency reward bands, and inhibitory postsynaptic potentials.

I feel like a student at a beauty school run by the Bride of Frankenstein.

Consulting my wig-head, I move my finger to a point on Marcia's scalp about two and a half inches above her right ear. In the spot below my finger, beneath a quarter-inch of bone, lies a cluster of 20,000 pyramidal neurons stacked three deep on the outer layer of her brain's sensorimotor strip, which governs body sensation and movement. Marcia's companion, Marvin DeVoe (a handyman by avocation and the only unlicensed trainee in the room besides me) squeezes a salty, gritty paste called Nu-Prep onto the spot I've indicated and scrubs.

I smear a chickpea-sized lump of clear, viscous wax onto an electrode--it looks like a tiny, gold cokespoon with a long, yellow, electrical wire attached--and press it onto the freshly cleaned spot on Marcia's scalp. Like a stethoscope pressed against a wall to eavesdrop on a party, this little spoon is capable of "hearing" faint electrical signals pulsing from neuron to neuron beneath the bone.
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