Posted: Thu, January 23, 2014 | By:
by Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D.
Extrapolated from Chapter 12 of The Psychedelic Future of the Mind.
When Bigger Heads and Better Brains Surpass Our Current Ones—
Can psychedelics contribute to the transhuman agenda? It helps to see both psychedelics and transhumanism as partners in a wider project. I call it the “Neurosingularity Project.” The Neurosingularity Project is the discovery, construction, and development of useful abilities in all mindbody states, both natural and synthetic. This project is consistent with transhuman goals, and as the name immediately suggests, it derives from Ray Kurzweil’s adaptation of the scientific word singularity. In his use, the singularity names a hypothetical future emergence of greater-than-human super intelligence through technological means, and he adopted singularity for the title of his 2005 book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. He posits a time not long from now when computers will surpass human thinking thanks to nanotechnology, genetics, artificial intelligence, and similar technological breakthroughs. But as his subtitle suggests, Kurzweil assumes that our brains and their biological information processing skills are static and will remain static while computers and electronic information processing surpass our poor outdated brains.
Neurosingularity posits a time when future human brains (and minds) will surpass ours of today. Thus, we have two parallel and mutually reinforcing singularities, Kurzweil’s electronic and Neurosingularity’s mindbody.
This essay looks at a number of questions that result. Rather than just enhancing current human thinking skills, is the neurosingularity likely to increase the kinds and number of our brain-based information systems? Can we build: 1) better brains and install a greater variety of biological information processing programs (apps) in them? 2) More mindbody states? 3) More apps for the mind? Will some of them enhance current cognitive routines, while others create entirely new cognitive algorithms? What sources of ideas flow into the idea of neurosingularity?
Tributaries to the Neurosingularity Project
The idea-flows into the theory of neurosingularity clearly stretch back at least as far as William James’s 1902 insight, “ …there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different [from normal waking consciousness] … definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation,” (1958, 298). Today scientific insights into the nervous system are being published almost daily. Multistate Theory helps organize our thinking about the Neurosingularity Project.
According to multistate theory (Roberts 2013), a significant and often underappreciated human trait is our ability to produce and use a large number of mindbody states (Sometimes these are confusingly called “states of consciousness”). Multistates’ first point: There is a vast and unknown number of mindbody states, each with its respective kinds of cognitive and non-cognitive functions. Second, we achieve these mindbody states by installing a variety of psychotechnologies in our minds—mindapps—methods of producing mindbody states. Mindapps include martial arts breathing routines, neurofeedback, transcranial brain stimulation, among many others. Thanks to a burgeoning catalog of psychotechnologies, thinkers are no longer trapped into using only their ordinary default state and its siblings, sleeping and dreaming. Third, human abilities reside in (are outputs of) their respective mindbody states. Default state abilities’ have analogs in other states and may change from state to state. Recognizing this opens and invents a general question for the biological and social sciences: How does ____ vary from mindbody state to mindbody state? For example, How does spontaneous remission vary from mindbody state to mindbody state? (Roberts 1999) and Do mystical experiences—psychedelic and otherwise— boost the immune system? (Roberts 2013). Some abilities may appear rare and unusual to us only because they don’t reside in our ordinary, default state.
In summary: digital apps are to devices as mindapps are to brains.
Psychotechnological mindapps can help fulfill the transhumanist goals of extropy:
[The] extent of a living or organizational system’s intelligence, functional order, vitality, a capability and drive for improvement …perceptual progress, self-transformation, practical optimism, intelligent technology, open society, self-direction, and rational thinking…removal of political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to continuing development…Growing in healthy directions without bounds,” (More &Vita-More 2013, 5).
The extropic goals can all be assisted by the broad range of psychotechnologies including psychedelics. Transhumanism’s sparse knowledge of psychedelics is one of the great puzzlements about this movement. I guess it is due to the Singlestate Fallacy—the error of assuming that all worthwhile thinking takes place only in our default, ordinary mindbody state (Roberts, 2013, 123-124).
The Psychedelic Future of the Mind (Roberts 2013) focuses on psychedelics as one practical psychotechnology with a wide and diversified range; many of them are right up transhuman’s alley. In addition to psychedelics’ more popular influences on, say music and the visual arts, psychedelic psychotechnologies contributed to the birth of computer revolution (Markoff 2005), produced solutions to scientific and professional problems during experimental research (Fadiman 2011), provided the insights for one Nobel Prize in biology (Mullis 1998) and quite possibly another (Rees 2004, Fadiman 2011, 4), enriched the humanities, and strengthened cognitive studies (Roberts 2013), mapped the human mind in greater detail and provided access to it (Grof 1975/2009). Currently psychedelics are advancing research in mental health (Winkelman and Roberts 2007), reforming religion (Roberts 2012, Ellens 2014), and informing philosophy including the philosophy of science (Lemmens et al, 2015).
Current psilocybin research from the Johns Hopkins Medical School’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit is collected on the website of the Council on Spiritual Practices (www.csp.org/psilocybin). Published in top-ranked journals, it epitomizes the scientific standards of current psychedelic research. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and its Bulletin cover a wider range of psychotherapeutic and adjacent topics (www.maps.org). It remains to be seen whether transhumanists will follow these leads and possibly even access the forms of intelligence that reside in psychedelic and other mindbody states.
The Human Potential Movement
When we compare extropy with a description of the Human Potential Movement, it’s clear that they share remarkably similar optimistic goals for humanity with HPM being a precursor of transhumanism:
The Human Potential Movement (HPM) arose out of the milieu of the 1960s and formed around the concept of cultivating extraordinary potential that its advocates believed to lie largely untapped in all people. The movement took as its premise the belief that through the development of “human potential”, humans can experience an exceptional quality of life filled with happiness, creativity, and fulfillment. As a corollary, those who begin to unleash this assumed potential often find themselves directing their actions within society towards assisting others to release their potential. Adherents believe that the net effect of individuals cultivating their potential will bring about positive social change at large. (Human Potential Movement, 2014).
Voluntary Control of Internal States
Why have the transhumanist and transpersonal boats passed like ships in the night? Transhumanist memes come primarily from the physical, biological, and computer sciences, while transpersonal psychology’s tend to ignore the physical and computer sciences, overlap somewhat in the biological sciences but also have roots in the psychological sciences and humanities. Historically, this concept gap is at least partially due to the bad reputation that psychedelics had in the late Twentieth Century.
In my view, this shows up via a series of conferences sponsored by the Menninger Foundation and Clinic. Once a year in the 1970s, Menninger and the Transpersonal Institute co-sponsored a small invitation-only conference at an isolated church camp in Council Grove, Kansas (Fadiman 1969, 1970). Officially “The Conference on Voluntary Control of Internal States,” it was known familiarly as “Council Grove.” The conference intentionally published no proceedings, and the press was barred.
An official reason for this was that the meetings provided a safe venue for the first presentations of “raw” ideas before they were sufficiently matured to be presented at professional meetings or in publications. These tryout sessions allowed researchers to stretch their speculations and receive professional feedback in order to refine their ideas. Cutting edge topics included biofeedback, meditation, Native American and Eastern psychologies, alternative medicine, and other topics that were considered fringy at the time and which one didn’t discuss at serious scientific gatherings. Among the topics were psychedelics. My guess is that another handy reason for the scanty reports from Council Grove was that the organizers and participants needed a free agora of ideas away from the scurrilous ire of the press, politicians, and professional watchdogs.
In the Twenty-first Century with similar goals and outlooks on life, transpersonalists and transhumanists are well-suited as colleagues, notably in psychedelics. With a Lancet article titled “Research on Psychedelics Moves into the Mainstream” (Morris 2008), Scientific American’s “Hallucinogens as Medicine” (Griffiths & Grob 2010) and with a popular text in positive psychology now including psychedelics in its current edition (Compton and Hoffman 2012), transhumanists and other forward-looking scholars who fail to examine psychedelic leads are simply missing the boat.
Transhumanism, transpersonal psychology, multistate theory, and the human potential movement can all contribute to their mutual fulfillment.
A Wider View of Our Minds
Although The Psychedelic Future of the Mind focuses on the psychedelic family of psychotechnologies (Roberts 2013), a complete Neurosingularlity Project expands the perspective to explore all known techniques for moving toward superior, multistate brains and eagerly anticipates other psychotechnologies yet to be discovered and invented. In this context, the word brains, of course, is too restrictive, but it will serve as a shorthand for our whole nervous and hormonal systems, as well as other aspects of our bodies.
Unfortunately most people who are investigating the wide range of psychotechnologies do not see their own work or that of others who specialize in other psychotechnologies as integrated into one larger model of our minds. However, multistate theory and Neurosingularity Project will help them recognize that all mindbody tributaries flow into a much grander river. With human existence going from the physical sciences through chemistry, biology, psychology, the social sciences, cognitive studies, the humanities and philosophy (Lemmens et al 2015) a complete view of humanity has to recognize that inputs from all these levels affect the others. Each discipline and selective intellectual group contributes its favorites; a full understanding of what it means to be a human and our possible human futures requires the full range of inputs.
As this article speculates, future developments may result in both more efficient current brains and newly redesigned ones, possibly even ones with new neurotransmitters, new receptor sites, and other new structures. Below we’ll sample some science-based leads, wonder about their mindbody futures, and speculate about where their roads to progress might lead us.
The Three I’s of Progress— Insight, Intervention, Innovation
Before looking at markers and milestones of the Neurosingularity Project, it helps to gain historical perspective on how science-based discoveries develop into innovations. When we look at the road that science and its applications take, they start with discoveries, then move to overcoming current problems, then extend these advances to complex interactions with other applications and then sometimes move beyond to inventing uses that have not existed yet. If pharmacology and genetics, for example, follow the typical three “I’s” of science-based progress—insight, intervention, and innovation—where might they take us as the years roll by?
In scientific fields basic discoveries typically occur first. But by no means does this always happen. Skilled craftsmen blended metals when they were still thinking about the spirit of iron and the soul of copper. Some shamans make experienced-based claims about plants. But in our age and culture, scientific insight generally starts the ball rolling. For example, with new genetic instrumentation, techniques, and discoveries coming on fast, the previously slow-moving rivulet of genetic research is now a rushing torrent. Mapping the human genome, the functions of its genes, cellular genetics, and the onrush of other discoveries are advancing both science and its technology. The article “New Pathway for Neuron Repair Discovered” illustrates the insight and intervention steps in research (Penn State 2014). After summarizing insights from their research (a method for improving dendrite growth in damaged fruit fly neurons), the authors mention possible long-term interventions in treating stroke. Of course if this pans out, it will be a significant advance, but the article also illustrates the lack of the third, innovative stage. Might their technique lead to further innovations in brain and mind development?
We can’t blame them for omitting this. It is not part of the current scientific practice. It is a role of transhumanists to think about what innovations this could lead to.
Following scientific discoveries, we are seeing the applied stage of the journey. Clinical genetics is a specialty of clinical medicine with particular attention to hereditary disorders, including birth defects, developmental problems, autism, epilepsy, short stature, and many others. A bioengineering example of insight leading to intervention (and thence to innovation) comes from nanotechnology. At the University of Southern California engineering professors built a synthetic synapse, which functions similarly to a brain synapse. The development of nanotubes and ways to manipulate them was the previous insight step. The team leader, Professor Alice Parker, looks forward to the intervention stage, expecting the technology might provide prosthetic devices for brain injury. Her team is already thinking about the innovation stage. “The next step is even more complex. How can we build structures out of these circuits that mimic the function of the brain, which has 100 billion neurons and 10,000 synapses per neuron?” Next, she says, is building brain plasticity in the circuits, but a whole synthetic brain or even a brain area is decades away (“Functioning Synapse” 2011).
In an increasingly multidisciplinary world, maybe we are seeing the birth of a new field: nanoneuroengineering. On a more wildly science-fiction note, will it become possible to design genes that build nanostructures or nanofactories that produce genes or proteins (Drexler 2013)? Because they work with similar-size objects, somehow or other, these fields seem destined to hybridize. While these insights and interventions show regular progress, from a multistate perspective, they are additionally important because they are milestones toward inventing the minds of the future.
Beyond scientific insights and medical interventions—as wonderful as they are— a neurosingularity perspective asks, “How can we use these discoveries to upgrade the standard mind and its skills?” This third stage I-question goes beyond current givens to imagine new ranges of possibilities.
While transhumanists hold the human mind in great esteem for its scientific reasoning, discoveries, and applying them to human problems as well as improving life, multistate theory carries mind-progress a step further: the mind itself is a construction. It is a variable, more than that, an experimental variable. New ways of using it become possible—synthetic mindbody states, ones that have not existed before.
By raising synthesis one level, the notion of psychological synthesis sits well within the history of scientific synthesis. At the most basic level of physics, we have the synthetic elements. Synthetic chemistry has enriched human life with a cornucopia of synthetic materials. Starting with selective breeding and similar biological innovations, the life sciences continue their contributions to human welfare. But now synthetic biology is adapting biological processes as construction techniques to engineer both life forms and non-life materials (Synthetic biology 2014, Dexler 2013).
So far, these are primarily products done with singlestate minds. Now it is time to move up another level to the synthesis of new forms of mind.
I hope workers on the Neurosingularity Project will achieve psychological synthesis, inventing mindapps that install new mindbody states and their respective biological information processing algorithms (Roberts 2013, 135-145).
When should transhumanists start considering synthetic minds? Now.
Markers and Milestones (TOOLS FOR MIND TINKERERS)
Way signs to the neurosingularity are appearing almost daily. I am not claiming that researchers are on the verge of transforming our brains and nervous systems yet, but some of these markers, milestones, and others like them are probably the parents and grandparents of future psychotechnologies. To keep up on these advances, I recommend a free subscription to ScienceDaily’s “Mind and Brain News” emailing list (www.sciencedaily.com). For keeping up on psychedelics, they also have a news list titled “Illegal Drugs and Controlled Substances News” as well as many others. The KurzweilAI.net Daily Newsletter is another free boxful of gems.
Although the examples we’re looking at in this section are exciting in their own fields, here we value them as markers along the neurosingularity trail. From this perspective, it is more important to see them as markers and milestones in the progress of their underlying sciences and techniques.
This section is speculatively high-flying, so read it with a pinch of salt—or whatever you like to flavor your mind with.
With long-term, healthy life extension a major goal among transhumanists, self-healing and spontaneous regression fit the transhumanist agenda. These processes also illustrate contributions from a multistate perspective in raising researchable questions and specifically the value of using psychedelic mindapps to generate relevant information. Because alternative medicine often uses various mindbody states (Freeman 2009), the question, “How does healing vary from mindbody state to mindbody state?” links the transhumanist interest in health and longevity to mindbody apps. Numerous anecdotes and some studies attest to the hypothesis that unusual healing often occurs during altered mindbody states (Roberts 2013, 88-101, Freeman 2009). Exceptionally strong positive emotions (a common indicator of altered states) are often correlated with people’s subjective feeling of being healed, but are the positive feelings a pleasant side effect, or are both caused by something else? It is well known that stress and negative affect cause (or are associated with) ill health and positive affect is associated with good health.
Overwhelming positive affect is a standard characteristic of mystical experiences (Hood 1975), so if we can produce these experiences experimentally, perhaps we’ll have a clue to improved health. We can test this hypothesis (“Do Psychedelic-induced Mystical Experiences Boost the Immune System?” Roberts, 2013, 88-101). Unlike most medicines, the proposed effect is not a straightforward pharmacological drug effect. It is the psychological effect of the mystical experience; the psychedelic mindapp is used merely to produce a mystical mindbody state. The word mystical as it is used in psychology denotes a specific cluster of subjective experiences (Hood 1975), not its Halloweeny or spooky sense in ordinary language.
The University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds provides an example of a behavioral mindbody app that affects physiological processes (University of Wisconsin 2013). In “Study Reveals Gene Expression Changes with Meditation” Richard Davidson’s group found that molecular and genetic changes following a day of intensive mindfulness meditation occurred with experienced meditators but not with an untrained control group on non-meditators. The practice “altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pre-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.” It is important to notice here that causation can run both ways—upward from the biological and chemical to behavioral and subjective and downward from behavioral and cognitive to the cellular and molecular, what Sperry called “emergent causation” (Sperry 1983, 93-96). Transhumanists tend to look at the upward path, while psychologists tend to look at the downward path. A full story requires both.
Placebo, Ability not Effect
It is time to question the logic of the so-called “placebo effect.” In medical research, a placebo or false treatment is selected because it will have no effect on the outcome; however, about a third of the people receiving the placebo often improve. This is (mis)called “the placebo effect.” Attributing an effect to something that has no effect is illogical. Of course, it isn’t the placebo that is causing the effect; it’s something the patient/subject does, perhaps from an expectation. It is worth noticing that a thought and its accompanying emotion can boost health. What we are actually noticing is an ability to heal oneself. I like to nickname it the placebo ability (Roberts 1987). Because it is something people do—whether voluntary of involuntary— naturally the multistate question pops up, “How does the placebo ability vary from mindbody state to mindbody state?” Hypnosis, imagery, and other mindapps pile onto this question (Freeman 2009).
This is not a prediction, only a speculation, but the speculation is not without some grounding. Craniosynostosis is the premature closing of the skull in babies (affecting about 1 out of 2,500 in the U.S.). Surgeons and engineers at Emory University and the Center for Pediatric Healthcare Technology in Atlanta are developing a treatment for craniosynostosis and have developed a model in mice that may be adapted someday to children. In one study they discovered genes that influence fusion in the skull. In another, they designed a gel that can be injected into the gap between skull bones to slow down their premature closing (“New Hope for Children” 2011).
Currently, of course, their work is for intervention/treatment. Will it move into an innovation stage to promote natural brain growth to continue awhile longer?
Another clue to this possibility already comes from another genetic discovery. One of the major differences between humans and chimpanzees is that human skulls continue to grow for a longer time than chimp’s skulls. According to a study published in Nature,“How the Penis Lost its Spikes: Humans Ditched DNA to Evolve Smooth Penises and Bigger Brains,” researchers discovered several regulatory genes that turn other genes on and off are active in chimps but turned off in humans (Corbyn 2011). Gill Bejerano, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Stanford University School of Medicine, and his colleague, David Kingsley, looked for genes that existed in chimps but were missing in humans. He found a DNA deletion in humans that was located near a gene that kept brain cell growth in check. “The deletion of this DNA may have contributed to the development of larger brains in humans,” he said. In the future, will this lead to a way to build still larger brains? Will it be combined with turning on the genes that control nerve growth factors?
Big-headed scifi creatures from outer space do not seem so odd now. Maybe they’re premonitions of our own descendants.
Inventing Neurostructures and Neurotransmitters
When we look to chemistry and materials engineering and realize what they have accomplished, startling questions emerge. Just as experts in these fields synthesized previously unknown compounds and materials, will neurogeneticists improve on our brains not just by overcoming their current shortcomings with interventions but also by empowering them with additional growth or complexity? Are such things possible? When scientists discover the suites of genes that produce our neurotransmitters, will they be able to turn them on and off?
Is increased brain plasticity possible (Thompson 2014)? The New Scientist’s online article “Learning Drugs Reawaken Grown-up Brain’s Inner Child” speculates that the drug valproate (currently used for mood disorders and epilepsy) may reopen brains to critical periods for learning, similar to the learning potential in children’s brains. An early study which tried to teach adults perfect pitch showed some promise. Perfect pitch is considered learnable only at a very young age. Whether valporate approach works or not, the topic of voluntarily controlling plasticity is receiving attention.
Will innovators move beyond turning genes on and off to designing new neurotransmitters and new receptor sites to accept them? Will they dare to? When they discover how to orchestrate nerve growth factors or invent new ones, what then? What will happen if scientists activate the genes to produce additional nerve growth? A recent study with salamanders indicates is a possibility (Berg et al. 2011)? It’s a long way from salamander brains to human brains. Or is it? Perhaps this research will lead to the ability to temporarily control the regulatory genes that control the on/off switch for nerve cell growth.
Synthetic Biology—Transgenic Invention
Just as physicists have formed synthetic elements —ones that don’t occur in nature— and chemists have enriched our lives with synthesized compounds, biologists are engineering biological processes and building blocks in new ways, called appropriately “synthetic biology” (2014). Besides the interventions related to repairing organs and even growing replacements, they are inventing variants of existing plants and animals. A 2011 article “Harvard Scientists to Make LSD Factory from Microbes” describes how biologists have worked with yeast to adapt it to make lysergic acid, a precursor to LSD. This process is the first of several steps in producing LSD and the full sequence is not complete yet, but this advance could be a first step to complete LSD production. Using these techniques, will new psychoactive chemicals and plants be invented.
Genetic engineering also hints at processes that may one day reshape our brains and minds. For example, using gene transfer from one species to another, scientists have introduced a gene for scorpion poison into cabbage, one that is harmless to humans but kills cabbage worms. They have engineered the digestive processes of a pig so that its feces will contain less phytate to cut down on algae blooms when the sewage gets into water, and they have developed chickens whose eggs contain cancer-fighting medicines (Medical News Today, 2007). More recreationally, by introducing a gene for a green fluorescent protein (GFP) from a jellyfish into a rabbit (Philipkoski 2002) and into a cat (“Glowing Cats” 2011), they have produced animals that glow in the dark under fluorescent light. The GFP is now in labs worldwide where it is used in numerous plants and animals, including flatworms, algae, E. coli, and pigs. Is glow in the dark marijuana in the offing?
Does genetic transfer point to an opening for transgenic scientists who have an interest in psychedelics? Might they transfer genetic material from psilocybin mushrooms into, say, blue cheese mold? Similar opportunities for transfer may exist for genes from marijuana or ergot and other psychoactive plants. The possibilities are mind boggling.
The confluence of genetics and the other rivers of scientific information hasn’t happened yet in multistate studies, but when we look at the path that scientific innovation usually takes, it’s just a matter of time before it does. The sending cell of a synapse, its neurotransmitters, the receiving cell, and its internal cascade of relayed messages are all made according their respective genetic blueprints. So the next step is to control the genes that construct neuronal cells by turning the appropriate genes on and off. As “Functioning Synapse Created Using Carbon Nanotubes” hints (2011), this opens the door to a more basic level of medical intervention/treatment, possibly eventually combining with deeper levels of invention via genetics
Geneticists are now identifying genetic errors that result in dysfunctional diseases (insight), and will soon increase interventions, perhaps by activating genes to help produce more (or less) of a neurotransmitter. Addressing problems regarding the structure of the cells that form a synapse is likely to be next. These cells may need more vesicles to squirt out their neurotransmitters or more (or fewer) receptor sites on the receiving cells. While not easy tasks, the possibility of adjusting current processes to accomplish them fits within the usual road of progress in the medical sciences. Perhaps a genetic solution to producing more nerve growth factors will be needed to help overcome a disease or injury. Perhaps chemicals that can activate the appropriate genes can be introduced into our—or future generations’—brains.
Instead of using only electronic information technology—or biology hybridized with IT—to augment human intelligence, milestones in genetics are advancing us down the path toward producing better human brains and other extropic goals.
Crossing the Blood-Brain Barrier
However, the blood-brain barrier has to be contended with in any attempt to chemically influence neurons in the brain. This filtering device screens out many molecules but lets through those that the brain needs such as water, oxygen, and glucose. For one hundred years medical and biological researchers have been stumped by the problem of getting chemicals, especially large ones, into the brain. However, researchers at Cornell University have discovered a molecular key—adenosine—to open the blood-brain doors (Carman et al. 2011). Treatment, as usual, will take precedent over functional innovation uses, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and brain cancers are first in line. But after that, what? Will adenosine doors open the way to nurturing neurons, building better brains, and carrying new psychoactive molecules?
Working along a different line, researchers at Columbia University’s departments of bioengineering and radiology have developed another way to open the blood-brain barrier using ultrasound, as documented in “Noninvasive and Localized Neuronal Delivery Using Short Ultrasound Pulses and Microbubbles” (Choi et al. 2011). Until recently, the use of relatively strong ultrasound has often caused collateral damage. The new treatment uses much smaller and shorter bursts. After diffusion through the blood-brain barrier, the inserted drugs not only affect cell membranes but can penetrate all the way through to the cell’s nucleus. Here too, Alzheimer’s is the first target for treatment, but will this method along with the adenosine method also open a door to the brain and innovative psychoactive drugs and new psychotechnologies for delivering them? Will these contribute to future mindapps?
On a more science-fiction note: When scientists discover the genes that control nerve growth factors and develop the ability to regulate them, will they be able to assist this natural process in order to produce more brain cells? Will the Neurosingularity Project then move from brain repair and enhancement to enlargement or even brain design? Of course our current skulls are full already, but delaying the hardening of our heads by a year or more and allowing them to expand even by 1/64th of an inch would create more room for additional cells.
Currently pharmacology is the river with the greatest flow of new psychotechnologies. Its tributary of psychedelics is just one of many contributing to its gigantic flow. Appropriately enough, the synaptic gap between nerve cells is a major focus of pharmacological attention. Some chemicals speed up or increase the amount of neurotransmitters that the sending cells squirt into the gap. Others slow down or decrease the amount. Still others slow down or speed up the scavengers that pick up neurochemicals and recycle them for reuse. On the receiving side of the gap, another group of medicines affect how neurotransmitters plug in to the receiving cells or how the receiving cells react. The discoveries of how our synapses work and other discoveries about our nervous systems are great advances in biology and medicine, and humanity is better off thanks to them. Using modern genetics, it may well be possible to modify synapses’ design or even invent new kinds.
As we have seen, historically and culturally most psychedelic use was, and still is, of one plant at a time. “Archeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World” lists more than 180 studies of historical and prehistorical use of psychoactive plants stretching “well back into the Pleistocene” (Merlin 2003, 295). In the past decade there may have been as many more. In the late Twentieth Century and early Twenty-first Century, pharmacology has moved beyond naturally occurring substances to molecular design.
To a large degree, discussions of augmenting intelligence follow in the footsteps of increasing via artificial intelligence (Englebart 1962). However, enhanced cognition and intelligence with psychedelics has already occurred (Roberts 2013, 135-145), so a full consideration of amplifying intelligence has to include pharmacological and biological advances too. In addition to qualifying as enhanced intelligence when it’s defined as problem solving (Gardner 1983), selecting mindapps qualifies when intelligence defined as “mental self management” (Sternberg 1988). Selecting a mindapp for a particular use is higher level executive cognition that might even be called metacognition.
Express Your Inner Savant
The savant syndrome provides other clues worth following. In April 2011, I attended a bioethics conference in Madison, Wisconsin, sponsored by ProMega Corporation. Dr. Darold A. Treffert, a specialist in savant syndrome from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, described a puzzling case. A surgeon who was struck by lightning via a telephone line just as he was hanging up became a musical savant, while continuing to function normally, including being able to practice surgery (Treffert 2011). This raises the question of whether savant abilities are available to nonsavants if we could develop a psychotechnology to access or install them. A clue comes from Australia.
In 2009, 1 topical issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences was dedicated to the savant syndrome; it included an article by Allan Snyder from the Centre for the Mind in Australia. He proposes that savants “have privileged access to lower level, less-processed information” (Snyder 2009, 1399) in our brains, and in the section “Inducing Savant Skills Artificially” he speculates that “such skills might be artificially induced by low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation” in normal adult brains.
Snyder’s whole abstract is exciting reading, not only because it may be a clue to hidden human abilities but also because it illustrates how leads come from unexpected places.
Abstract. I argue that savant skills are latent in us all. My hypothesis is that savants have privileged access to lower level, less-processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and meaningful labels. Owing to a failure in top-down inhibition, they can tap into information that exists in all of our brains, but is normally beyond conscious awareness. This suggests why savant skills might arise spontaneously in otherwise normal people, and why such skills might be artificially induced by low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation. It also suggests why autistic savants are atypically literal with a tendency to concentrate more on the parts than on the whole and why this offers advantages for particular classes of problem solving, such as those that necessitate breaking cognitive mindsets. A strategy of building from the parts to the whole could form the basis for the so-called autistic genius. Unlike the healthy mind, which has inbuilt expectations of the world (internal order), the autistic mind must simplify the world by adopting strict routines (external order). (1,399)
Snyder’s abstract meets several criteria of multistate theory. It proposes hidden abilities in our minds, suggests a psychotechnology to access them (transcranial magnetic stimulation), and it fits into the central multistate research question: How do human skills vary in savant mindbody states?
Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind (2012) provides a clue to what is gong on. He uses a model of our neocortex that posits six levels of information processing. It starts with simple sensory input on the lowest level. Its information is assembled with more information at the next level up, and this process continues up to the sixth level. Most of us are aware of the top level only, but according to Snyder’s idea, savants are aware of the information at lower levels. Could transcranial magnetic stimulation itself or as part of a mindapp recipe allow us to voluntarily turn savant-like abilities on and off?
Generating Research Agendas
When the general multistate question is asked about these milestones, researchers will generate a wider range of questions that deserve data-based insights into them. “How does (insert topic) vary from mindbody state to mind body state? The research principle that findings derived from broad data sets are stronger than ones from narrower samples supports obtaining data from multiple states.
Expanding this further, we select the appropriate computer programs and device apps for whatever tasks we want to accomplish. Different programs for different purposes—of course. Now we simply transfer that perspective to mindapps and ask, “What mindapp is best for this task?” Answering this question will take decades of research and similar to medicines may vary from person to person.
Sequences and Recipes
Inventing new psychotechnologies, chemicals, breathing skills, exercise routines, and so forth is an open frontier. An even more innovative step is to combine psychotechnologies into new recipes, to orchestrate them into innovative series, to invent new mindapps and their synthetic states. An early example is Myron Stolaroff’s suggestion to use two psychoactive drugs to structure psychedelic sessions. Stolaroff was vice president for long-range planning at Ampex Corporation, one of the grandparents of Silicon Valley, where magnetic sound recording tape and videotape were developed.
Stolaroff left Ampex to found the International Foundation for Advanced Study (IFAS) in Menlo Park, California. IFAS provided many of the first studies of the use of psychedelics for creativity and problem solving. One of his coworkers there was James Fadiman whose Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide (2011) provides the most complete report of professional problem solving with LSD.
Stolaroff also knew many of the other psychedelic pioneers, including the previously elusive “Secret Chief,” an underground psychedelic psychotherapist, now identified as psychiatrist Leo Zeff (Stolaroff 2004). Drawing on his years of experience, friendship with psychedelic practitioners, pioneers, and psychoanalysis on how to structure psychedelic sessions, in his book Thanatos to Eros Stolaroff proposes using MDMA first to see if a person is comfortable with altered mindbody experiences, and if so, starting a later session with MDMA to establish a positive emotional set prior to a second stage provided by LSD. Referring to his IFAS period, he reports, “The combination of MDMA followed by LSD proved an extremely effective one” (1994, 54–56).
This instance of combining mindbody psychotechnologies is both unusual and forward looking because it proposes using two mindapps, in this case both drugs. A combination of meditation and psychedelics has been used far more often. In Psychedelic Reflections psychiatrist Roger Walsh reports that several spiritual leaders whom he interviewed found psychedelic sessions benefited from a prior “period of quiet and/or meditation” (1983, 117). According to “Buddhism and Psychedelics” a 1996 special topics issue of Buddhist journal Tricycle, psychedelic experiences piqued many practioners’ interest in spiritual matters, leading them away from drugs toward meditation and experiential religions. Where might new sequences and new recipes for combining mindapps take us?
Without our recognizing it, the Neurosingularity Project has already started down the typical road from scientific insight and intervention/treatment to innovation. The information above marks milestones along this road. Current neuropsychology is mapping the human nervous system and many of its complexities. There is still a long and exciting way to go. Just as a full mindmap must include all mindbody states and all their respective abilities and biological correlates, a full extropy must include them too.
Chapter 8 of The Psychedelic Future of the Mind mentions the possibility of combining existing mindbody psychotechnologies, both chemical and behavioral, to produce new, synthetic mindbody states. It considered only new mindbody states as they might affect our current brains, but genetic, medical, biological, and psychological advances raise the possibility not only of enhancing our current brains’ activities but also designing advanced brains.
Existing psychotechnologies provide enough leads to keep generations of psychologists, biologists, and their many friends and relations busy. And the scope of the Neurosingularity Project will grow even broader as new psychotechnologies are invented and imported from other cultures: each new mindapp multiplies the number of their possible combinations and sequences. Transhumanism offers additional mindapps particularly computer-brain interfaces. When brain enhancement is added, the number of possible psychotechnology recipes and sequences multiplies with each enhancement.
What should we call future mindbody inventors—crainial architects, head inventors, consciousness composers, neuroengineers, neuroartists, or cognitive designers?. How about mindapp designers? Thanks to mindapps, the possibilities for the Neurosingularity Project’s future are enormous and growing. As transhumanists enrich multistate theory, I wonder what mindapps they will invent and what transhumanism and the Neurosingularity Project will produce when they hybridize.
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Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D., Stanford, is an emeritus professor at Northern Illinois University, where he teaches Foundations of Psychedelic Studies as an Honors Program Seminar. Started in 1981, it is the world’s first university-cataloged psychedelic course. His major related publications include:
In the fall of 2006, he was a Visiting Scientist at the Johns Hopkins Medical Schools’ Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit. He is a founding member of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), co-founder of the Council on Spiritual Practices, launched the Rising Researcher sessions at conferences, and originated the celebration of Bicycle Day. Most important, he formulated Multistate Theory and the Neurosingularity Project for which he coined the word mindapps and the phrase singlestate fallacy.
- The Psychedelic Future of the Mind: How Entheogens are Enhancing Cognition, Boosting Intelligence, and Raising Values. (2013). Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT.
- Spiritual Growth with Entheogens: Psychoactive Sacramentals and Human Transformation. (editor 2012), Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT.
- Psychedelic Medicine: New Evidence for Hallucinogenic Substances as Treatments (2 vols. co-editor 2007), Praeger/ABC-CLIO, Westport, CT.
- Psychedelic Horizons: Snow White, Immune System, Multistate Mind, Enlarging Education. (2006), Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK.
- Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments: An Entheogen Chrestomathy (1995-2001, www.csp.org/chrestomathy)
- The Second Centering Book: More Awareness Activities for Children, Parents, and Teachers. (co-author 1977). Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Translated into Japanese, 198?.
- Transpersonal Psychology in Education. (co-author 1975). Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, Bloomington, IN.
- Four Psychologies Applied to Education: Freudian, Behavioral, Humanistic, Transpersonal. (editor1975). Schenkman/John Wiley, New York. Translated into Spanish 1978.
His website is: niu.academia.edu/ThomasRoberts