March 13, 2006

Extreme 'natural' brains

I have always been intrigued by superhuman feats of cognition. It's truly amazing what some people are capable of, be they math geniuses or musical prodigies. Moreover, from the perspective of neuroengineering, it's quite interesting to see how, given a minor tweak here or there, the brain is truly capable of extreme mental feats.

Take some autistic savants, for example. Most autistic savants have what are called 'splinter skills' that allow them to memorize facts, numbers, license plates, maps, and extensive lists of sports and weather statistics. Some can mentally note and then recall back perfectly a very long series of music, numbers, or speech.

Some, the so-called 'mental calculators', can do lightning-fast arithmetic calculations, including finding prime factorizations. Other skills include precisely estimating distances by sight, calculating the day of the week for any given date over the span of tens of thousands of years, and perfect perception of passing time without a clock.

One notable autistic savant is Kim Peek, who can recall about 9,600 books from memory.

It's amazing to think that Kim Peek's talent is likely the result of a minor genetic tweak or two in the brain (i.e. a mutation), and that the neurotypical brain, or the brain in its 'natural' or default state, is not too far removed from Peek's.

Consequently, it's quite likely that in the early stages of neuroengineeing these sorts of augmentations will not be too difficult to bring about. The trick will be to create cognitively gifted people without the side-effects, namely autism and other psychological disorders (and yes, I'm claiming that autism is a disability for all those in the autistic rights movement).

Strangely, however, why autistic savants are capable of these extraordinary feats is not quite clear. Some savants have obvious neurological abnormalities, but the brains of most such individuals appear anatomically and physiologically normal.

While not exclusive to autistic savants, extreme memory is one particular example of what the human brain is capable of. Individuals with an extreme ability for recall have what is called 'eidetic memory.' Just last year, for example, Akira Haraguchi managed to recite pi's first 83,431 decimal places from memory, and in 1994, Tom Groves memorized the order of cards in a randomly shuffled 52-card deck in 42.01 seconds.

It's believed, by the way, that polymath John von Neumann had eidetic memory.

Interestingly, and possibly of relevance to this topic, von Neumann's colleague, John Nash (who was portrayed in A Beautiful Mind), also has extraordinary math skills, but suffers from schizophrenia. Also, Kurt Gödel suffered terribly at the hands of paranoid schizophrenia. The linkage between brilliance and attendant mental illness is an important topic, particularly on the eve of cognitive enhancement.

For more on memory skills, check out this article on Wired about the recent memory championships.

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1 comment:

AnneC said...

(and yes, I'm claiming that autism is a disability for all those in the autistic rights movement).

I'm curious as to why you included this statement. I read your blog often and have been on Betterhumans for a while now, and respect your perspectives on quite a lot of things -- I'm just trying to get a sense of why the link to was given in the context of defining autism as a disability.

One of my own goals in the transhumanist / tech progressive arena is to foster tolerance for human diversity in many forms -- tolerance for "unenhanced" or disabled humans as well as the enhanced. After all, there are plenty of people who could be (and are) simultaneously enhanced and disabled.

I'm hoping to become one of these people -- in a sense, I am absolutely certain that my own atypical neurology has contributed to my interest in transhumanism. I would gladly enhance myself to the point where I could achieve a radically extended lifespan and perhaps gain a few additional abilities while I'm at it -- but I would never want to re-wire my brain .

When you talk about enhancing brains to provide them with abilities similar to some of those seen in "autistic savants" but without the supposed "side effects", it is quite important to define what are considered "side effects" -- because it really is somewhat relative.

I have no problem with individuals seeking to choose their own ability sets based on the goals they have for their life -- that's exactly what I am trying to do, after all. As long as no other person (or governing body, or what have you) decides to start imposing restrictions on what range individual abilities might fall into .

The following quote from this post makes a very good point regarding the range of people needed in a functional society.

Part of our role in society is to notice what other people miss. This is not a better role than the roles of any other kind of people, but it is an essential one. It requires being outside of at least some taboos, because people miss things as a result of taboos as much as anything else. It requires being outside of at least some of the kind of filtered perception that non-autistic people have trouble escaping. It requires autistic people. Not a whole society of autistic people, but autistic people as an essential part of society.

Being "outside the filtered perception" of many people seems to be almost the norm among autistic persons. And having this outside-ness may be something entirely inextricable from being autistic. At any rate, I do not think that a society with no autistics -- or a society that could not tolerate or accomodate autistics -- would be worthy of being called "transhuman".

(Sorry about the rant there -- but sometimes points take more than a few concise words to make!)