Alice in Neuroland


Can Machines Teach Us to Be More Human?

September/October 2005


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…

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