Thanks to non-invasive methods of neuromodulation, virtual reality and psychedelic drugs we will be able to “re-write” the brain anew, stopping the negative memories in particular. Monika Redzisz talks do Dr. Divya Chander from Singularity University, a Silicon Valley think tank

Monika Redzisz: Why did you decide to study consciousness?

Divya Chander*: I’m an anesthesiologist. My patients often ask me before the operation: “doctor, are you sure I won’t be conscious during the operation?” or “are you sure I’m going to regain consciousness after the operation?” Their concern is valid– I can manipulate their self-awareness, after all. Drugs that I administer will cause brain receptors to be blocked, causing the patient to lose consciousness. I will stop administering the drugs after the operation. He’ll wake up, not remembering what’s happened to him. Many crucial questions will then be asked: where has the patient’s consciousness gone? What happened to it? What distinguishes consciousness from the lack of awareness? Where does consciousness come from in the first place?

I’m trying to understand the mechanism of consciousness emergence and disappearance on the level of neurons.

If we could create a perfect copy of the human brain, would consciousness automatically emerge in it?

There’s a hypothesis that consciousness emerges automatically at a certain stage of computational complexity. There are many intermediate consciousness stages, after all. During sleep, some functions of the brain don’t work, are much weaker – a person doesn’t communicate, they process less information compared to when they’re awake. When I wake a patient up after the operation, these functions get activated. Maybe, at some point, we’re going to be able to enhance computational complexity of some artificial creation to the point, where consciousness will emerge? Will it happen?

An experiment was conducted on a worm’s brain – an extremely simple one, consisting of a 300 neurons. Scientists from Vienna University of Technology copied the neuron linkage patterns and installed it in a Lego robot. Does that mean the robot has gained the consciousness of the worm? Is consciousness nothing more than a connectome?

The majority of scientists who create new technologies see only the ‘’white mirror.’’ They hope their inventions will make the world a better place. They can not imagine their technologies could be used for a nefarious agenda

Even if we’re able to copy the whole human connectome one day, reproduce every link, the whole dendritic and axon networks, it’s unclear whether consciousness will emerge. I doubt it.

It’s interesting, by the way, that the brain remains such a mystery, yet it doesn’t stop us from trying to construct its copy.

We have a lot to learn, but I wouldn’t call the brain a mystery. We know quite a bit and neurobiology makes enormous progress every year. The attempts to construct an artificial brain aren’t baseless. If I wanted to build car, I’d take the proper parts and try to assemble them together, even though I don’t know everything about how the car is built. I’d like to count on the fact that by trial and error I’m going to learn new things.

Dr. Divya Chander

It’s the same thing neurobiologists do today: they try to reconstruct the brain, even though they don’t know everything about it. It’s enough for them to know how particular areas are built, what their functions are. They link a neuron to a neuron, creating synapses, and learning a lot in the process. They try to create the brain from organic and inorganic materials – silicon. There’s talk about quantum brains, but it’s speculation for now.

Is consciousness located somewhere?

This question is something most of us think about, because it carries philosophical consequences. Is our consciousness produced by this complex neural network called the brain? If this is the case, then consciousness will cease to exist after my death. Whatever produces it in my brain – will die with me.

The attempts to construct an artificial brain aren’t baseless. If I wanted to build car, I’d take the proper parts and try to assemble them together, even though I don’t know everything about how the car is built

But, maybe, it’s a different story altogether? Maybe consciousness is beyond us, in the universe, and our brain only has a brief access to this ‘’database’’, filtering it, processing it, but not producing it? If consciousness isn’t local, then maybe it can be transferred and this brings us close to the concept of the soul. In Judeo-Chrisitian tradition it’s believed that the soul goes to paradise or to hell after death, in Hindu and Buddhist tradition – that it moves on from one body to another. The belief in reincarnation is the belief in consciousness not tied to one place.

This belongs in the religious sphere. In the rational world, transferring consciousness is unlikely…

In the laboratory an interesting study was conducted by Steve Ramirez i Xu Liu from MIT: a mouse was put in a cage. When it touched the wall, it got mildly electrocuted. The mouse memorized it, this memory of discomfort got imprinted in the brain. Since then, the mouse avoided the dangerous area. The memory was stored in the hippocampus as a special map. This is the same part of the brain that grows in London taxi drivers – the functional magnetic resonance clearly shows that after years of working in this profession, the hippocampus is bigger than before.

What happened, however, when scientists registered the neuronal activity of the mouse and exactly the same circuits got reactivated in a different mouse which has never experienced electroshocks? The mouse started to avoid the same place as its electrocuted predecessor. The memory of one mouse became the memory of the second mouse. And this means we’re able to transfer memories – a component of consciousness – from one organic brain to another.

So we can implant a live being with false memories, a false consciousness. Terrifying.

For now, we can do it only with a really simple memory type. But the studies suggest that when we finally understand the activity of neurons and we will be able to predict how the synaptic weight in neural networks should exactly change to generate another memory – we’ll be able to stimulate it and, simply put, re-create memories.

Can we still call it a memory then? A memory without an event which got stored? Is a memory without a previous experience still a memory?

Well, the change is apprent – the second mouse behaves like it has experienced what the first one has experienced, so it’s a significant change. This carries with it many consequences. One of the best is that unlearning is possible – for example, getting rid of negative memories. For people suffering from PTSD, depression, for those who suffer from nightmares it would be a salvation. They are terrified of what’s perfectly a normal stimulus for you and me. Every sound, every sight can bring up the trauma they have gone through. If we could hack into the black box in our heads and input the changes in the neural network, meaning changing the synaptic weight, we could make traumatic experiences less emotionally triggering.

Currently, we give drugs to people with post-traumatic stress disorder: ketamine or LSD, meaning psychedelic drugs which have a temporary impact on brain plasticity. It’s like a therapist who helps work through the negative memories. The newest studies show stimulating the vagus nerve increases brain plasticity. One can more easily learn new things in this state, as well as unlearn the old things. Essentially, unlearning is the same process as learning; the synaptic weight changes here too. I believe that with the new opportunities that non-invasive neuro-modulation methods offer us, along with the virtual reality and psychedelic medicine, we’ll be able to ‘’re-write’’ the brain, blocking negative memories in particular. It’s a beautiful application of new technologies, wouldn’t you say?

It’s wonderful, although it sounds like science fiction.

Yet, it’s happening now.

During the lecture, you were talking about an experiment which proved that scientists can almost read our dreams.

It’s not an exact dream-reading yet, but the research result is really interesting. The following experiment was conducted in a Berkley laboratory: scientists from Jack Gallant’s team created an artificial intelligence algorithm which can decode signals from the visual cortex, saved by a functional magnetic resonance. The algorithm got trained on YouTube movies. A group of researchers were falling asleep while the magnetic resonance monitored their brain activity.
They were woken up and asked to remember or write down their dreams. Meanwhile, the scientists were trying to guess the content of their dreams, based on the stored magnetic resonance imaging alone. How did it turn out? They could re-create it in sixty percent.

Information is a powerful force today. Data is the new currency. The problem is our data is being gathered by governments, technological giants like Google, Facebook or Amazon. An ill-intentioned use of this information can be tempting

Should we think of linking our brains with artificial intelligence? A team of scientists from Neuralink is working on it. The company has been set up by Elon Musk.

Neuralink is building the brain-computer interface, so it’s doing what others have already done. Algorithms will read the intent – this is how a human being will be able to move a prosthetic hand, for example. The bandwith is the only difference: their electrodes are thinner, so they cause less damage in the brain. It’s an amazing achievement.

This opens up great possibilities, particularly for the disabled.

That’s true. It could be a life-changing revolution for them.

Unfortunately, the accessibility of such devices is marginal. Who’s going to use these wonderful implants that scientists at Neuralink are working on? Even the most common implant types which have been implanted in Poland for twenty years, are unaffordable for the average Pole. How do we democratize the modern technologies, so it serves humanity as a whole, and not just the chosen few?

Technology won’t democratize on its own, it’s up to us to make it happen. Product costs are falling and technology gets cheaper. More important than the price is taking the right course of action, that is sharing our knowledge and abilities with the rest of humanity. Information is a powerful force today. Data is the new currency. The problem is our data is being gathered by governments, technological giants like Google, Facebook or Amazon. An ill-intentioned use of this information can be tempting.

Are we to expect a turn of events straight out from the “Black Mirror”?

The majority of scientists who come up with new technologies, and also those who implement it, have a rather opposite tendency – they only see the ‘’white mirror.’’ They create their new, wonderful, solutions with the best of intentions; they hope their inventions will change the world for the better. They can’t imagine someone could use it with a malicious intent. And it’s certainly a possibility. If we can read people’s minds, then we can use it against them. All of us ought to assume responsibility for the ethical use of modern technology.

*Dr. Divya Chander: anesthesiologist, neurobiologist, futurist. She is the Chair of the Neurobiology and Medicine Department at the Singularity University, Santa Clara, California. She also lectures at the Department of Medicine, Stanford University. A Harvard University, University of California, San Diego and Salk Institute graduate. She is interested in the consciousness conundrum, what happens in the human brain after an individual loses consciousness and then regains it. She is also passionate about space exploration; as the graduate of The International Space University she conducted remote anesthesia simulations and operations in conditions analogous to the ones occuring on Mars; she also studied the influence of microgravity and radiation on the human organism.

Divya Chander at Masters & Robots in Warsaw

Divya Chander was one of the guests of the Masters&Robots conference, organized in Warsaw’s Złote Tarasy on October 7-9, 2019 by Digital University, an institution dealing with education in the field of digital transformation and future competences.

We would like to thank Digital University, the organizers of Masters&Robots 2019, for their help in arranging the interview with Divya Chander.

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