Shattering The Myths That Make Us Fear Brain Interfaces

Unlike the stuff of sci-fi movies and TV shows, brain interfaces aren’t actually that scary, argue Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel.

The following is adapted from Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Sci-Fi by Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel, published by Rosenfeld Media.

Brain interfaces are on the verge of becoming household technology. But something stands in the way of widespread adoption—namely, the myths we have about them that we’ve inferred from sci-fi movies and television shows, which base their ideas of brain interfaces on bad sciences. Here are the major two.

[Johnny Mnemonic]

Myth #1: Brain-affecting interfaces will be painful.

In most sci-fi, moving information in or out of the brain is painful to the subject, even when the technology is noninvasive. Subjects’ heads are immobilized and their body reclined to a resting position, as if to minimize potential damage and discomfort. This frame is problematic because it isn’t true for today’s real-world, state-of-the-art technology, and isn’t likely to be true in the future, either.

In the real world, the closest science has come to putting data directly into the brain is with a procedure called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMI). At best, it can keep subjects alert and aware, and Australian TMI researcher Allan Snyder has shown it can improve subjects’ scores at math tasks. Otherwise it can dim localized faculties such as inhibition, cause involuntary jerking of muscles, or cause the subject to see white spots of light in their vision. At worst, it can induce seizures, but it doesn’t give subjects bodice-ripping migraines like sci-fi would have us believe. Nor has it deposited any "information" into anyone’s brain, and it is unlikely to.

[Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

The closest we’ve gotten to getting data directly out of the brain is with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) neuron reading, an MRI procedure that measures blood flow to different areas of the brain. The resulting image is rather crude, certainly not a rich visual experience. Furthermore, the process isn’t painful.

[The Matrix]

Myth #2: Knowledge Can Be Installed and Uninstalled Like Software.

Some sci-fi properties show skills and information being plugged in to the hard drive of the brain (either through a jack or through the eyes) and uploaded. Just wait for the painful progress bar, and—poof!—you know kung fu.

This metaphor is problematic because it runs counter to modern brain science, which says that the structure of the brain is the knowledge of the brain. Furthermore, this structure is holographic, meaning bits of information related to a single thought are distributed throughout the brain, and the neurons involved are also used for other thoughts. To "upload" information requires a precise physical restructuring of some significant portion of the 100 billion nerve cells in the gray matter. Neither flashes of light blasting the retina nor electrical impulses shooting through a jack will do it.

[The Adjustment Bureau]

These two myths bias the regular consumer against brain interfaces, out of a fear of losing knowledge, personality, or sensory perception. But the truth is that our brains are neither that malleable nor our science that advanced to create the dramatic mind-altering effects we see on movie and television screens. Plenty of good ideas come from fiction, but when it comes to viable brain interfaces, the stories we generally find entertaining are just that—fiction.


Written by Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel.

Want to learn more about brain interfaces and more in sci-fi movies and TV shows? Go here. Co.Design readers get a 15% discount (code: FASTCOMPANY) on Make It So and all other titles from Rosenfeld Media.

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