February 28, 2009

Drug use among pets increasing

A recent National Geographic article addresses the increasing tendency of some pet owners to medicate their pets with anti-depressants and other psycho-pharmaceuticals that have been explicitly developed for humans.

The issue made headlines earlier this month after a pet chimp attacked a woman in Connecticut leaving her in critical condition. The chimp may have been given the anti-anxiety medication Xanax because he was agitated -- a claim that his owner later retracted.

According to NG:

Demand for anti-anxiety medications for pets is growing, in part because of increased public awareness of the drugs' potential benefits, said animal-behavior expert Bonnie Beaver of Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

It's not known, however, exactly how many pets are taking such drugs, Beaver said.

Common side effects of anti-anxiety medications in pets include drowsiness or sedation, said veterinary behaviorist Melissa Bain of the University of California, Davis.

But in dogs, drugs such as Xanax can reduce inhibition, worsening aggression problems, Bain said. Dogs that are both fearful and aggressive, for example, may lose their fear and lash out.

"We use [anti-anxiety medications] with caution in aggressive animals, by all means," she said.

Other side effects of Xanax, noticed in dogs and cats, include excitement, irritability, and increased affection.

I could write a tome about this topic. This trend raises a number of issues:
  • Should pet owners be allowed to medicate their pets (yes, in some circumstances)
  • Should pet owners medicate their pets with drugs intended for humans (probably not)
  • Should drug companies develop drugs specifically intended for pets? And if so, what psychological issues would these drugs address? Why? (probably yes -- all pets by definition have already been highly modified and domesticated; as for what psychological traits to address, that's an open question -- but perhaps human psychology may provide a clue)
  • Should people be allowed to have chimps (and other highly intelligent species) as pets? (definitely not)
  • Should people even be allowed to have pets (Peter Singer would say no)
I would be interested to hear what you think. Please feel free to share your thoughts on the matter.

Video representation of the 'Thatcher effect'

This is one of my favorite optical illusions and it's neat to see it demonstrated on video. I like it because it reveals how facial recognition is a discreet neurological process (or processes as The Neurophilosopher has reminded me).

This illusion may be caused by specific psychological processes involved in face perception which are tuned to upright faces. Faces seem unique despite the fact that they are very similar. Humans may have developed specific processes to differentiate between faces that rely as much on the configuration (the structural relationship between individual features on the face) as the details of individual face features, like the eyes, nose and mouth. When a face is upside down, the configural processing cannot take place, so minor differences are more difficult to detect.

Interestingly, this effect is not present in people who have some forms of prosopagnosia, a disorder where face processing is impaired, usually acquired after brain injury or illness. This suggests that their specific brain injury may damage the process that analyses facial structures.

Implantable nerve stimulator for sleep apnea

Inspire Medical Systems has developed an implantable electronic stimulator for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The company has received FDA approval for the device and it's already being used by some patients.

OSA is a form of sleep apnea that's caused by obstruction of the airway. It's characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. These episodes, called apneas, each last long enough that one or more breaths are missed and occur repeatedly throughout sleep. In obstructive sleep apnea, breathing is interrupted by a physical block to airflow, despite the effort to breathe.

Inspire Medical Systems's Inspire II System remedies this problem by applying an electric current to the hypoglossal nerve at proper times by sensing the pulmonary pressure of the patient.

More here.

Isaac Asimov interviewed by Bill Moyers on World of Ideas

Another reason why YouTube is so great: Bill Moyers talks to Isaac Asimov about learning, computers, population growth, the universe and the efficacy of reason over faith.

February 27, 2009

Freeman Dyson at TED: We can look for life in the outer solar system

Renowned theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson suggests that we can look for life on the moons of Jupiter and out past Neptune, in the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud. He talks about what such life would be like (e.g. creatures that look like lenses and mirrors with roots that go deep into the ocean) and how we might find them.

Dyson is one of my favorite people in the whole world -- one of the great minds of our time. I'm overjoyed that he's still going strong well into his 80's.

Vernor Vinge on superhuman intelligence and Moore's Law

Science fiction writer and futurist Vernor Vinge argues that there's more to getting to the Singularity than Moore's Law.

And over at Accelerating Future, Michael Anissimov drives the point home that the Singularity is just about smarter than human intelligence.

Kurzweil and Grossman: Transcend

Futurist Ray Kurzweil and MD Terry Grossman have announced their next collaboration: Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. Back in 2004 the duo published Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. As the title suggests, the new book will offer practical advice for those people who are looking to optimize their health. And perhaps live forever.

The book will hit store shelves on April 28, 2009, but you can pre-order your copy.

Book description:
In 2004, Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, MD, published Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. Their groundbreaking book marshaled thousands of scientific studies to make the case that new developments in medicine and technology will allow us to radically extend our life expectancies and slow down the aging process. Soon, our notion of what it means to be a 55-year-old will be as outdated as an eight-track tape player. TRANSCEND: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever presents a practical, enjoyable program so that readers can live long enough (and remain healthy long enough) to take full advantage of the biotech and nanotech advances that have already begun and will be occurring at an accelerating pace during the years ahead. To help readers remember the nine key components of the program, Ray and Terry have arranged them into a mnemonic: Talk with your doctor Relaxation Assessment Nutrition Supplementation Calorie reduction Exercise New technologies Detoxification This easy-to-follow program will help readers transcend the boundaries of our genetic legacy and live long enough to live forever.
While you're waiting for this book you can read my article, Eight tips to dramatically improve your chances of living forever.

Via Astranaut.

The HULC exoskeleton

Via Next Big Future.

Matter and Beyond explores transhumanism [video]

Matter and Beyond, an online TV show that explores the intersection of science and spirituality, has produced an episode on transhumanism that features IEET Executive Director James Hughes and renowned physicist Freeman Dyson. The 30-minute video covers such topics as human trait selection, performance enhancement and artificial wombs.

Program description:
From our ancient myths that included stories about Greek gods such as Zeus, to modern day superhuman heroes such as the bionic woman, Superman and Batman, human beings have been fascinated with the idea of being more than a mere mortal.

Transhumanism is a discipline that is concerned with the social and scientific implications of overcoming human limitations. It is now possible, with the use of technological and bio-medical innovations, to live longer, be stronger and transcend the limitations that human beings have faced since the beginning of existence. But what are the moral and ethical implications?

From steroids to designer babies to artificial wombs, our leading thinkers discuss the ethical and moral implications of bio-technology and nanotechnology. Dr. Gayle Woloschak Woloschak questions whether technologies and pharmaceuticals that enhance human abilities be available to people who don’t necessarily need them for therapeutic use – but rather simply to be stronger – as in the case of steroid use. And while we are in the process of developing bio-medical techniques that allow us to order up any kind of baby we desire, Ethicist Dr. Freeman Dyson believes we may be going too far. He points out that some people would be willing to spend any amount of money and use any means necessary to order exactly the kind of baby they desire. While some have viewed that there are obvious natural limits to what human beings should do with their biology or their brains, Ethicist Dr. James Hughes points out that the view of these natural limits has shifted historically – as in the case of invitro fertilization which 30 years ago was known as ‘test tube” babies is now considered a common practice. Join us for a fascinating look at the exciting possibilities and some terrifying concerns arising out of innnovations in biotechnology.

Spring edition of h+ magazine released

The spring edition of h+ magazine has been released. You can download it for free.

Editor R.U. Sirius, formerly of Mondo 2000 fame, notes:
Has the future been canceled?

Rising up out of the gloom of early 2009, the second edition of h+ magazine sends a message of hope to weary changesurfers.

With articles like:

  • "Space Solar: Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun " by Howard Bloom

  • "The Global Financial Crisis: A Hiccup on the Path to Superintelligent Financial Markets?" by Ben Goertzel

  • "Singularity 101 with Vernor Vinge"

  • "First Steps Toward Post Scarcity or Why It's the End of the World as We Know it and You Should Feel Fine" by Jason Stoddard.

  • h+ #2 takes on the mess in front of us and then catapults us further on and further out.

    And for those of you who prefer your futurism gritty, we have John Shirley on Cyberpunk for the 21st Century and Paul McEnery talking to "BioGunk" SF writer Peter Watts.

    In my humble opinion, this is the most fully realized edition of a periodical that I have been involved in since the glory days of Mondo 2000 in the early '90s. Really, when's the last time you saw a magazine that deserves to be read front to back? Seriously, check it out.

    And that's not all. For those of you - like me - who love the feel of a good old-fashioned print magazine in your hands, we are printing a limited number that will be available on some magazine stands and directly through us.
    About h+ Magazine:

    h+ covers technological, scientific, and cultural trends that are changing — and will change — human beings in fundamental ways. We will be following developments in areas like NBIC (nano-bio-info-cog), longevity, performance enhancement and self-modification, Virtual Reality, "The Singularity," and other areas that both promise and threaten to radically alter our lives and our view of the world and ourselves.

    More than that, h+ aims to reflect this newest edge culture by featuring creative expressions of humanity on a razor's edge where daily life and science fiction seem to be merging.

    Charlie Stross on the Singularity: "Forget it"

    Science fiction writer and futurist Charlie Stross has published his FAQ for the 21st Century. In discussing the technological Singularity he notes:
    The rapture of the nerds, like space colonization, is likely to be a non-participatory event for 99.999% of humanity — unless we're very unlucky. If it happens and it's interested in us, all our plans go out the window. If it doesn't happen, sitting around waiting for the AIs to save us from the rising sea level/oil shortage/intelligent bioengineered termites looks like being a Real Bad Idea. The best approach to the singularity is to apply Pascal's Wager — in reverse — and plan on the assumption that it ain't going to happen, much less save us from ourselves.
    I strongly recommend you read the entire FAQ.

    February 26, 2009

    Future terror: neurohacking - A SentDev Classic

    In the 1995 anime sci-fi classic, Ghost in the Shell, a futuristic world was envisioned in which cybernetic individuals routinely operate in the virtual world as easily as in the real one. Transhuman cybernetic minds are inextricably connected to the cyber-realm, leaving them vulnerable to attacks.

    In this projected future people are subjected to 'ghost hacking' in which their minds are taken over by computer hackers without their knowing it. Their 'ghost' or essence, or soul, or self, or whatever descriptor you want to give for self-identity, is manipulated and controlled from a remote source.

    As disturbing as this sounds, it's not beyond the realm of plausibility. When considering the Church-Turing thesis of computational compatability, and given recent insight into cognitive computationalism (or functionalism), one can make the assumption that future human minds will be indelibly linked to extraneous computer systems.

    And as a frightening precursor to 'ghost hacking', also known as neurohacking, a recent article in Technology Review reveals that the first generation of invasive neurohacking may be only years away.

    In her article, titled "Could Terrorists Hijack Your Brain?" Emily Singer reports on how security experts are warning that we need to prepare for a much broader spectrum of potential bioterror agents -- this according to a report released this week by the Washington, DC-based National Academies.

    While most bioweapons research is focused on the usual suspects, namely such agents as anthrax and smallpox, it is now thought that emerging technologies in biotechnology and the life sciences could be usurped to take control of genes, immune systems, and even brains.

    Terrorists, or even state-actors for that matter, could also co-opt relatively new technologies, such as synthetic biology (which aims to build organisms that can detect or produce chemicals or perform other functions) or RNA interference (a technique that allows scientists to easily control gene expression).

    There is also concern about the potential of bioregulators -- small, biologically active organic compounds that can regulate different systems in the body. Newer technologies such as targeted delivery methods that zero in on the immune or neuroendocrine systems could make it easier to use bioregulators in evil ways.

    Such is the double-edged sword of technological development. For each advancement, someone can twist it for self-serving and nefarious purposes. Consequently, in order to prepare for the ever-changing "threat spectrum," the advisors recommend that technologies with dual-use potential -- those that can be used to either help or harm humanity -- be continually reassessed to take account of rapid advances in biotechnology.

    Additionally, it is suggested that a scientific advisory board be developed to assist the national security community and to ensure that teams monitoring these threats have the most up-to-date scientific expertise. It was also advised that public health infrastructures be strengthened and that incentives be put into place for the creation of broadly active vaccines and other products that can protect against diverse agents.

    "It's like the transition from trench warfare to mobilized warfare between World War I and World War II," notes one of the report authors. "How do we begin to defend ourselves against that dynamic threat landscape? How do we adapt our health, medical, and biodefense systems to respond to that?"

    Interestingly, the advisors also endorsed an open exchange of information in the life sciences as much as possible, emphasizing that the best means of protecting against future threats is further advances in technology.

    So, are we indelibly headed for a Ghost in the Shell like future? Quite possibly yes, but it appears that we may have the safeguards, firewalls, and prophylaxis in place to deal with the problems as they arise.

    As a final aside, humans have had to deal with 'neurohacking' for quite some time now, but not in such invasive ways. Ever since propaganda was developed, people have had their minds influenced by external sources. And memes themselves, whether they be autonomous or created and directed by individuals or groups, are impacting on their hosts, directing the human sense of self and how decisions are formulated.

    It looks, however, that keeping control of our minds is about to get harder by an order of magnitude.

    This article was orginally published on February 1, 2006.


    This image of the amputee mermaid is all over the place, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to post it on my blog. For many transhumanists, this is a dream come true. More here and here.

    New look and tagline

    Doing a bit of housekeeping around here. I've changed the header graphic, tagline and color scheme. Improvement, no?

    February 24, 2009

    The Big Dog Pack-Bot

    Via KurzweilAI: "The U.S. Army has released new footage of the BigDog robot--a sophisticated, four-legged "pack-bot" designed to carry 340-pound payloads across all kinds of terrain--up or down hills, through ice, sand, snow, and dirt--by monitoring sensors in its legs and adjusting its posture accordingly."

    While this machine is very impressive, I'm not convinced of its practicality. The thing is slow, loud as hell and it has to carry its own fuel. I wonder if an actual beast-of-burden wouldn't be more effective...

    Meet your next surgeon: The RIO Robotic Arm

    MAKO Surgical recently announced the release of its RIO Robotic Arm Interactive Orthopedic System.

    While the device is strictly intended for knee resurfacing operations, the RIO may be a sign of things to come; robots like RIO may be increasingly utilized in complex surgeries. Knee resurfacing is a notoriously difficult operation to perform and it is hoped that the RIO robot will introduce stability and precision.

    The device is not completely autonomous. It is designed to assist surgeons during knee resurfacing operations, a minimally invasive type of surgery thought to be useful for younger, active patients with early osteoarthritis.

    According to MAKO:
    MAKO’s robotic arm system is the first FDA-cleared robotic arm system for orthopedic surgery. It provides patient-specific, three-dimensional modeling for pre-surgical planning. As surgeons use the robotic arm to resurface the knee for placement of the implants, RIO™ provides real-time inter-operative visual, tactile and auditory feedback, enabling a high level of precision and optimal positioning of the implants.

    MAKOplasty® provides the potential for improved surgical outcomes, with a less invasive partial knee resurfacing procedure that spares healthy bone and tissue, preserves ligaments and allows for a more rapid recovery and a more natural feeling knee.
    Sure, looks fancy -- but what about its bedside manner?

    Via Medgadget.

    Carl Sagan's transhumanist vision via The Pale Blue Dot

    EARTH: The Pale Blue Dot from Michael Marantz on Vimeo.

    This video was put together by Michael Marantz who pieced together the words from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot to create an inspiring narrative.

    Louis CK on Conan: Everything is amazing, but nobody is happy

    February 23, 2009

    Kurzweil's "Transcendent Man" film trailer

    Transcendent Man introduces the life and ideas of Ray Kurzweil, the renowned futurist who journeys the world offering his vision of a future in which we will merge with our machines, can live forever, and are billions of times more intelligent...all within the next thirty years.

    February 21, 2009

    Why do we love slow motion video?

    David Eagleman is guest blogging this week.

    During my studies of human time perception I’ve become fascinated by a peripheral question: why do we love slow-motion photography so much? Movies like The Matrix and 300 use time warping as a standard tool in their cinematographic toolbox. The success of this approach has leaked into commercials and music videos and almost every other action film on the scene. Even comedian Dave Chappelle has noted our love of slow-mo: to demonstrate that everything “looks cooler in slow motion,” he shows how his experience in the laundromat changes from mundane to sexy as soon as it is replayed slowly (in slow motion, the old woman by the washing machine becomes a young model tossing her locks of hair in the breeze).

    So why is time warping so successful and engaging? I propose three reasons.

    1: More time gives a proxy for denser memories

    I recently posted about the claim that time slows during a life-threatening event. To the best that we were able to address this, our studies suggested that the impression of slowed time is a trick of memory: denser memories are laid down during salient events, yielding more than the normal amount of detail when read back out. So one can speculate that slow motion video gives a proxy for this extra-dense memory: by presenting a scene slowly, one can enjoy a rich experience with plenty of time to dwell on all the details that normally leak away from us. In other words, when a movie scene is presented slowly we can grab onto and remember many details, just as we do during a real-life high-adrenaline moment.

    This idea can explain the natural introduction of slow motion videography into scenes of violence. The first American movie to use slow motion was Bonnie and Clyde. Much to the shock of the audience, the cinematography went into balletic slow motion as the two main characters of the movie met their violent end under a hailstorm of bullets from the police. As Bonnie and Clyde lived out their final seconds, the audience got several extra seconds in which to appreciate it. The director, Arthur Penn, had an intuition about what he was doing; he reported: "The intention there was to get this...attenuation of time that one experiences when you see something, like a terrible automobile accident." Although critics at the time called the slowing of the death scene gratuitous and callous, the idea caught on. Giving the audience a heightened ability to catch and remember details worked well and has been imitated thousands of times since.

    But note that not all interesting slow-mo videography involves high-adrenaline situations, indicating that there may be more to it--and this leads us to the next point.

    2: Slow motion extends human perception by unmasking hidden data

    From a transhumanist perspective, slow motion videography is a technology that allows us to extend our senses beyond their natural capacities. It allows the revelation of data hidden in the folds of time, just as a microscope allows us to appreciate the wonders of a fly's wing or a microbe's choreography.

    As one example, consider microexpressions, the fast movement of facial muscles that pass rapidly and unconsciously over peoples’ faces. Microexpressions are normally not accessible to awareness (the owner’s or the viewer’s) because they are too brief. But they can reveal all sorts of secrets, including when someone is lying. For example, when Susan Smith got on the TV news to plead for help in finding her kidnapped children, a slowed-down version revealed micro-expressions that could suggest (at least, with the benefit of hindsight) that she was lying about the whole event. Slow motion video unmasks the world of these temporally hidden facial clues.

    Moreover, by unveiling things undetectable by consciousness, slow motion can allow not just temporal sleuthing but temporal intimacy. Consider this passage by the British sports writer Matt Rendell about the 1998 Tour de France winner Marco Pantani. Writing about the use of super slow-motion cameras in sport, Rendell penned what I consider to be one of the most beautiful passages in sports writing:
    Now, as he rides towards victory in the Giro d’Italia, the camera almost caresses him. The five seconds between the moment Marco appeared in the closing straight and the moment he crossed the finish line are extruded to fifteen enduring seconds. The image frames his head and little else, revealing details invisible in real time and at standard resolution: a drop of sweat that falls from his chin as he makes the bend, the gaping jaw and crumpled forehead and lines beneath the eyes that deepen as Marco wrings still more speed from the mountain. Then – and it must be the moment he crosses the line – he begins to rise out of his agony. The torso rises to vertical, the arms spread out into a crucifix position, the eyelids descend, and Marco's face lifts towards the sky. It is a moment of transfiguration, visible only in super slo-mo or in still – and only the best of the finish-line photographers catch it. Super slo-mo shows us something we could never otherwise see – involuntary gestures Marco never chose to reveal, perhaps because, without super slo-mo technology, he cannot know he makes them. The public knows more about Marco than Marco himself: a truth, we are tempted to imagine, and one that has nothing to do with the race outcome as such, for the pictures frame out the finish line and the clock, and show nothing of his work rate, muscular toil or the relative positions of the riders that yield the race result. Instead, we find ourselves looking into Marco’s face the way a mother and her baby might, or lovers at the moment their affection is first reciprocated.

    3: Time-warped video holds our attention by violating expectations

    Finally, note that brains develop deeply-wired expectations about Newtonian physics. For example, when a ball gets thrown in the air, your brain unconsciously uses its internal models to predict where and when is it going to hit. These models are so ingrained into our nervous systems that if you lob a tennis ball to an astronaut in zero-g, he will still move his hand to catch it as though he’s in a normal 1-g environment.

    I suspect that the high level of engagement during slow-mo video is related to a violation of these expectations about physics. Imagine you are watching The Matrix, and Trinity leaps into the air to kick an agent. Your brain makes (unconscious) predictions about exactly when she’s going to come back down. But, shockingly, time slows down and Trinity hangs in the air longer than expected. Your expectations about when she will land have been violated.

    As for why we find this interesting, it is probably because these violations hold our attention. Attention is maximally engaged when predictions are violated (an old idea that Jeff Hawkins summarizes nicely in his book On Intelligence). So my speculation, then, is that we like time-warped video because it is very attention-engaging: we are constantly getting the temporal predictions wrong, and so we are constantly on alert. In support of this, a very engaging style of cinematography is to rapidly alternate between speeding and slowing (think of the battle scenes in 300), thereby holding our attention throughout.

    David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and a writer. His book of literary fiction, Sum, debuted internationally this month.

    February 19, 2009

    MIT's "Sixth Sense": The wearable gestural interface

    Next gen as I see it would feature:
    • implants in the fingers instead of external sensors
    • non-projected display that is instead visible through an eye-tap device or contact lens
    • interactivity and data exhcange with other wearables

    New F1 cars and rules [CG video full of awesomeness]

    Here's the new McLaren MP4-24:

    I'm looking forward to watching Lewis Hamilton race this beauty.

    February 18, 2009

    Recent insights into animal intelligence

    Recent studies are adding to the growing body of evidence suggesting that animals are much smarter than we think:
    • Baby chimps given human love ace IQ tests: Study may shed light on how early care effects human baby development
    • Monkeys can subtract: The discovery marks the first time a nonhuman species has been seen having "widespread success" with subtraction.
    • Whiz chimps outsmart college students: Three five-year-old chimpanzees have soundly defeated nine university students while playing a computer game that tests numerical memory skills
    • Baboons and pigeons are capable of higher-level cognition: It's safe to say that humans are smarter than animals, but a University of Iowa researcher is investigating the extent of that disparity in intelligence.
    • Monkeys have a sense of morality: In a series of studies scientists have found that monkeys and apes can make judgments about fairness, offer altruistic help and empathise when a fellow animal is ill or in difficulties. They even appear to have consciences and the ability to remember obligations.
    Lastly, here's a video about how primate gestures may be linked to early humans -- a possible indication of how our ancestors may have communicated:

    Support the Great Ape Project.

    Working the conscious canvas - A SentDev Classic

    Last year in Toronto [2003], as an outgrowth of their PhD research into biofeedback, cyborgs James Fung and Corey Manders used EEG (brainwave) technology to give a concert in which audience members collectively and unconsciously created music with their minds. Called "DECONcert: Regenerative Music in the Key of EEG," the result was an experimental and jazz-like form of music that placed human beings into the feedback loop of a computational artistic process.

    To some, such work might seem fringe, the sort of science-meets-art that excites hackers, nerds and nobody else. But to me, DECONcert was a sign of just how close we are to a new era of art, one in which developing brain technologies open the door for new forms of artistic expression in which human consciousness and subjective experience become a canvas unto themselves.

    In his 1968 sci-fi classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick envisioned a machine called the "mood organ" that allowed users to dial-in their desired emotional states and, through some sort of techno-voodoo, achieve it. Around the same time, Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation series, envisioned a device he called the "Visi-Sonor" that could also stimulate emotions directly. And in 1970, writing in Ringworld, Larry Niven described the "tasp," a device that could induce a current in the pleasure center of the brain from a distance.

    As with all great science fiction, these works made prescient predictions. Recent insight into the workings of the brain and the development of promising neurotechnologies are showing that mood organs and similar devices are theoretically feasible. Given the pace of scientific development this century, I believe that these types of devices should soon be within our grasp, and along with them new modes of artistic expression and experience.

    From fiction to fact

    Of course, what I'm talking about is in some ways nothing new. People have tried to manipulate their brain and emotional state for thousands of years—witness the recent discovery of ancient brew in China. These include indirect techniques such as taking drugs and alcohol and direct techniques such as psychosurgery—there is evidence of trephining from Neolithic times. Psychiatric shock therapy, which is still used to treat undesirable psychologies and mental illness, falls somewhere in between.

    These, however, are crude attempts at cognitive control, with patients often not surviving procedures, or suffering adverse changes to personality. So are mood organs and their ilk actually possible, or will they forever be relegated to science fiction?

    Theoretically, they are possible, and evidence suggests that they are also technically feasible.

    At the physical level, emotions appear to be regulated through the amygdala, located deep inside the brain in the medial temporal lobe. The amygdala comprises several separately functioning nuclei, which are essentially electrical signal transit points. These components are necessary for fear conditioning, emotional arousal, smell and pheromone processing. It is the amygdala that induces changes in neuromodulator levels. In other words, if you can regulate the amygdala and its associated components, you can control emotions.

    Easier said than done, of course, but there are a number of ways in which this could be accomplished.

    So-called "brain jacks" would be the most direct route. External stimulation would be exceedingly challenging because the amygdala is fairly deep in the brain. As depicted in cyberpunk novels and films—perhaps most famously in The Matrix—a brain jack seamlessly interfaces the brain with a machine.

    Given sophisticated neural and computer science, a brain jack could tap into the sensory cortex and feed the brain all the data it currently receives through sensory inputs. There is nothing in the analog arena that cannot be converted into digitized or computational form for eventual processing in the brain.

    Another way would be to install small liquid perfusion pumps that distribute neuromodulators across the brain in the appropriate sequence and amounts, but this is an inelegant and brute force engineering solution.

    Essentially, the major difficulties to any of this are figuring out where to put the electrodes or pumps and what electrical dynamics, chemical dynamics or combination thereof are required to generate the appropriate patterns to get the desired response. It's safe to assume that such a feat won't be possible without sophisticated technologies, including intelligent computer control systems, microsurgery and possibly even molecular nanotechnology—not to mention the complete mapping of the human brain.

    But believe it or not, there are already devices in existence that, at a rudimentary level, perform similar tasks.

    Texas-based Cyberonics, for example, recently developed the Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS). VNS provides seizure control for epilepsy patients using an implanted cardiac pacemaker-like device connected to the vagus nerve in the neck. Once in place, the device can be set to emit electronic pulses to the vagus nerve at preset intervals and levels. Studies have shown that approximately 50% of epileptics treated in this fashion have significant seizure reduction.

    Researchers working on VNS also unexpectedly discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve in this way stimulated brain regions believed to control emotions. Essentially, VNS devices could be used as implanted emotion management "pacemakers." So, unsurprisingly, VNS is now being considered for treating depression.

    There are also noninvasive approaches that show promise—devices that would make Dr. McCoy from Star Trek jealous. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is one such remarkable technique currently under development. TMS uses pulsed magnetic fields to produce an electrical effect. Initially developed as a diagnostic aid for neurologists, TMS devices can stimulate motor regions of the brain, inducing a twitch of the thumb that tells a neurologist that particular nerve pathways are intact. Apparently free of serious side-effects, TMS can also affect brain areas involved in visual perception, memory, reaction time, speech and mood.

    Psychotropic sonatas

    Where might VNS, TMS, liquid perfusion pumps and brain jacks eventually lead? Quite obviously, potential applications lie across the board. But from the creative and recreational perspectives, the possibilities are quite fascinating.

    Today, artists are somewhat limited in their ability to go deeper inside a person's psyche and elicit an absolutely predetermined response. This limitation is set to change with the advent of sophisticated psychological control devices. In the future, artists will be able to perform not only on a canvas or musical instrument, but in the consciousness of the audience itself.

    It's conceivable that predetermined sets of emotional experiences could be a future art form. Artists might, for example, manipulate emotions alongside established art forms, a la A Clockwork Orange-but certainly not for the same questionable ends.

    For example, imagine listening to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" or "Moonlight Sonata" while having your emotional centers manipulated in synch with the music's mood and tone. You'd be compelled to feel joy when the music is joyful, sadness when the music is sad.

    The same could be done with film. In fact, last century, director Orson Welles, who was greatly influenced by German expressionistic filmmaking, directed movies in which the subjective expression of inner experiences was emphasized (Touch of Evil, for example). In the 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock, also a student of expressionism, went a step further by creating and editing sequences in a way that was synchronized with subjective perception, such as the quick-cut shower sequence in Psycho.

    In the future, audiences could share emotional experiences with a film's protagonist. Imagine watching Saving Private Ryan, Titanic or Gone with the Wind in such a manner. The experience would be unbelievably visceral, nothing like today's experience of sitting back and watching.

    The beauty of such experiences is that sophisticated virtual reality technology isn't required, just the control mechanisms to alter emotional experience in real-time.

    Of course, some will argue that when artists can directly manipulate emotions, they will have lost a dialogue with their audience, as audience members will simply be feeling exactly what's intended. But this won't necessarily be the case. Rather, audience members will respond to emotional tapestries in unique ways based on their personal experiences, the same way they do now to other art forms.

    Art has always been about transcending the individual and sharing the subjective experience of others. The greatest artists thrill us with their stories, endow us with emotional and interpersonal insight, and fill us with joy through beautiful melodies, paintings and dance. By doing so they give us a piece of their selves and allow us to venture inside their very minds—even if just for a little bit. In the future, we'll allow them to go even deeper into ours.

    This article originally appeared on Betterhumans on December 13, 2004.

    February 17, 2009

    Aimee Mullins at TED: Give me beautiful legs

    In my previous post I made the case for novel and non-traditional prostheses. I'm not implying, however, that this is for all people, nor am I suggesting that there's something wrong with a disabled person wanting to look like a "normal" human.

    Case in point is cyber-athlete and double-amputee Aimee Mullins. When Aimee is not tearing up the track with her carbon-fibre blades, she wears artificial legs that look and feel exactly like normal legs -- hair follicles and all. She even likes to paint her nails and wear high heels.

    Here's a video of Aimee Mullins at TED 1998 talking about running as a disabled athlete (very inspiring and I highly recommend you watch this) and her assortment of artificial limbs. It's a poignant example of how technologies can help people achieve self-actualization.

    The Immaculate designer prosthesis

    Something that's always bothered me about traditional prostheses is the constant attempt to mimic normal human morphology. Artificial legs are supposed to look like real legs and artificial arms are supposed to look like real arms, right?

    Well, that shouldn't always have to be the case. Why not think outside the box? This is an opportunity, after all, for some disabled people to express themselves and change their bodies in novel and unexpected ways.

    This is exactly the perspective of Hans Alexander Huseklepp who believes that prostheses should go beyond mere functionality and become objects of fashion and identity. To this end he has designed the "Immaculate" which explores new possibilities for assistive devices.

    Immaculate is a neurological prosthetic that will be connected to a user's central nervous system. The exterior of the prosthetic is textile clad in Corian plates which, in principle, will allow embedded technology to be seamlessly integrated. This material will also give the prosthetic a clear graphical identity. In addition, each joint is a globe joint, allowing a larger freedom of movement than a normal human arm.

    Will you perceive the event that kills you?

    David Eagleman is guest blogging this week.

    When light strikes your eyes, it takes some hundreds of milliseconds before you become conscious of the event. As a consequence, you are always living in the past. This strange fact of our existence is well known is neuroscience, but there’s an interesting, underappreciated consequence: you may not ever become aware of the thing that kills you.

    Cormac McCarthy addresses this point in his post-apocalyptic novel The Road, in a scene in which the main character has his pistol leveled on a miscreant. The malefactor challenges: “you won't shoot....they [my companions] will hear the shot.”

    The protagonist replies, “Yes they will. But you won’t.”

    “How do you figure that?”

    “Because the bullet travels faster than sound. It will be in your brain before you can hear it. To hear it you will need a frontal lobe and things with names like colliculus and temporal gyrus and you won't have them anymore. They’ll just be soup.”

    One way to appreciate the slowness of your perception is to compare it to the speed of mechanical devices. Take this incredible, sobering "anatomy of a crash," as described in an Australian magazine and echoed on Tom Vanderbilt’s blog. With fine-grained temporal resolution, it analyzes what happens when a stationary Ford Falcon XT sedan is struck in the driver’s door by another vehicle traveling at 50 kilometers per hour:

    0 milliseconds - An external object touches the driver’s door.
    1 ms - The car’s door pressure sensor detects a pressure wave.
    2 ms - An acceleration sensor in the C-pillar behind the rear door also detects a crash event.
    2.5 ms - A sensor in the car’s centre detects crash vibrations.
    5 ms - Car’s crash computer checks for insignificant crash events, such as a shopping trolley impact or incidental contact. It is still working out the severity of the crash. Door intrusion structure begins to absorb energy.
    6.5 ms - Door pressure sensor registers peak pressures.
    7 ms - Crash computer confirms a serious crash and calculates its actions.
    8 ms - Computer sends a “fire” signal to side airbag. Meanwhile, B-pillar begins to crumple inwards and energy begins to transfer into cross-car load path beneath the occupant.
    8.5 ms - Side airbag system fires.
    15 ms - Roof begins to absorb part of the impact. Airbag bursts through seat foam and begins to fill.
    17 ms - Cross-car load path and structure under rear seat reach maximum load.
    Airbag covers occupant’s chest and begins to push the shoulder away from impact zone.
    20 ms - Door and B-pillar begin to push on front seat. Airbag begins to push occupant’s chest away from the impact.
    27 ms - Impact velocity has halved from 50 km/h to 23.5 km/h. A “pusher block” in the seat moves occupant’s pelvis away from impact zone. Airbag starts controlled deflation.
    30 ms - The Falcon has absorbed all crash energy. Airbag remains in place. For a brief moment, occupant experiences maximum force equal to 12 times the force of gravity.
    45 ms - Occupant and airbag move together with deforming side structure.
    50 ms - Crash computer unlocks car’s doors. Passenger safety cell begins to rebound, pushing doors away from occupant.
    70 ms - Airbag continues to deflate. Occupant moves back towards middle of car.
    Engineers classify crash as “complete”.
    150-300 ms - Occupant becomes aware of collision.

    The last line is the zinger. Early studies by Benjamin Libet suggest that the last line should perhaps read as high as 500 ms, although others, such as Daniel Dennett, have correctly pointed out that it is impossible to measure the moment of onset of conscious experience, so the exact timing will never be known.

    Just as the explorer David Livingstone appreciated the biological kindness of stress-induced analgesia, there may an equivalent kindness in the slowness of perception.

    David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and a writer. His book of literary fiction, Sum, debuted internationally this month.

    February 16, 2009

    Re-visiting what happens during life-threatening situations

    David Eagleman is guest blogging this week.

    One interesting direction of transhumanism lies in the possibility of teasing out latent talents buried within us. In its grandest form, the question becomes: what are the possibilities for unearthing some sort of “superpowers”? The detection of exceptional abilities would not only (potentially) improve the human condition, but also give us stunning new data to draw from for our biological theories.

    The search for hidden powers is by no means new, of course. Artists have long used drugs to enhance creativity, and students around the globe are pounding energy drinks to optimize their cognitive abilities.

    But my interest, in particular, is in time perception, and so my next three posts will be about issues I’m chewing on in that domain. As George covered earlier, a few years ago I set out to address our capacity to perceive the world in slow motion. We have all experienced (or heard described) that time seems to “slow down” during a car accident, or during other high-adrenaline situations. So my laboratory performed experiments to directly address this, and, to my slight disappointment, we could find no evidence that people could really see in slow motion. Instead, they all seemed to believe that a scary event lasted longer—but only when they were reconstructing the event retrospectively. This suggested that the duration expansion during fear was a trick of memory. During a frightening event the emergency control centers in your brain quickly come online and lay down memories on a secondary memory track. Under normal circumstances, your memory is quite leaky; in frightening situations, memories tend to stick better. The end result is that we are not actually able to see in slow motion like Neo in The Matrix, but instead that consciousness seems to be postdictive, that is, constructed in retrospect. So much for the seeing-in-bullet-time superpower. Bummer.

    However, since the publication of that study, I have received dozens of emails from people describing their life-threatening experiences. Despite our negative results in the slow-mo domain, there are clearly interesting things going on in the moment of an accident. I’ve noticed a few patterns. First, it seems that the duration dilation is reported only when someone sees the event approaching, as in sliding on the ice toward a truck. When a person is blindsided, there seems to be something like a loss of time: everything is over before you know what happened. So the duration dilation seems to require anticipation. This is consistent with the need for the emergency control centers to kick into gear.

    The second thread in virtually all the descriptions is a total calmness about the life-threatening event as it takes place. As a historical example, in 1843, the African explorer David Livingstone was sprung upon by a lion. The lion shook Livingstone in his jaws the way a dog shakes prey. When someone else raised a rifle, the lion dropped Livingstone and went after him instead. As a result of the event, Livingstone lost power in his left arm for the rest of his life. But the extraordinary thing was that Livingstone reported that he had felt “no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of what was happening.” Similarly, it is commonplace for a soldier to not notice wounds, even mortal wounds, until after the battle is over. This appears to be the result of what’s known as “stress-induced analgesia.” All the body’s resources are marshaled for fighting (or running) one’s way out of a situation, not for tending to wounds. This analgesia depends on the release of chemicals in the brain called endorphins. So that’s good news for humans who end up in bad situations. As Livingstone interpreted it, it is “a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death.”

    What’s a bit stranger, and unaddressed in the literature, is that this calmness is often accompanied by a bizarreness of thought. For example, one man reported that while he was sliding along the asphalt after being thrown from his motorcycle, he composed a little song to the tune of his helmeted head bouncing against the asphalt. No fear, no panic, just a calm little tune. And I experienced something similar when I was younger and fell from a roof. As I plummeted toward what was likely to be my death, I was calmly thinking how similar the fall was to Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. No fear, no panic, just a crystal clear thought about a moment from a children’s book.

    The final commonality is that people claim to have made very good decisions, especially as regards motor actions—as in “I decided to jump onto the approaching car hood,” or “I darted out of the way with no hesitation.” Of course, there is no way to assess the subjective impressions of those who made the wrong decisions, because they can’t tell us; this leaves open the possibility that the survivors who write to me are those who enjoyed a bit of luck, and their brains retrospectively construct a good story about the potency of their decision-making.

    At this stage, there’s one more thing I want to look into, if I can figure out a way to do it scientifically. I’d like to better understand the common claim that “my life flashed before my eyes.” Does this really happen? It is difficult to know, at first blush, whether the statement is metaphorical. At least in some cases, the statement becomes something people say when they are trying to be clear that an event was extremely frightening. It becomes a linguistic equivalent of “that was really scary”, in the same way that saying “I was on cloud nine” is not meant to really imply something about levitation or cumulonimbi. The question is whether it is being used metaphorically in some cases, or in all cases. Take this example from another motorcycle accident victim:
    …it was at this stage that I started to think of some of the people I had gone to school with in both Primary and Secondary School. I thought of the names of teachers and students that I hadn’t thought of or remembered in years and could see their faces and the school yards as vividly as if it were only a few days ago. I could hear their voices in my head and was saying their names out loud.
    The challenge for brain researchers is to understand whether there is a nugget of something real at the heart of these claims, something that would force a change of our views about the capacity of memory, the potential speed of running through recall, and the power of calcified memories to suddenly shoot up to consciousness. Not surprisingly, these questions have not been addressed because of the difficulty in setting up a safe and meaningful experiment. Are there any ideas about what’s happening in these situations, or how to address these in an experiment? I’ll be very interested to hear readers post their own experiences or hypotheses.

    In my next two posts I’ll address some different aspects of slow motion and the speed of perception…

    David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and a writer. His book of literary fiction, Sum, debuted internationally this month.

    IVF not entirely safe

    The New York Times is reporting that in vitro fertilization (IVF) may not be as safe as typically assumed:
    ...some studies indicate that there may be some abnormal patterns of gene expression associated with IVF and a possible increase in rare but devastating genetic disorders that appear to be directly linked to those unusual gene expression patterns. There also appears to be an increased risk of premature birth and of babies with low birth weight for their gestational age.
    Entire article.

    Enter the supercow

    This fine specimen, known as the Belgian Blue, has experienced "double muscling" due to a gene that suppresses the production of myostatin, a protein that normally inhibits muscle growth after a certain point of development.

    Scientists have already inhibited the myostatin gene in mice and are working on blocking the gene in humans in order to treat muscle wasting diseases such as muscular dystrophy. A pharmaceutical company called Acceleron is developing a myostatin inhibiting drug called ACE-031 that will mimic this effect in humans.

    And I'm sure there are some athletes who can't wait to get their hands on it....

    Via kottke.org

    Demand for human trait selection creates a market

    The Wall Street Journal published an article last week on the topic of human trait selection -- a pending reproductive procedure that's more commonly (and pejoratively) referred to as designer babies. In the article, "A Baby, Please. Blond, Freckles -- Hold the Colic", writer Gautam Naik describes those laboratory techniques that screen for diseases in embryos and how those techniques will soon be offered to prospective parents.

    Click for larger image; credit: Wall Street Journal

    As previously noted here on Sentient Developments, demand for the non-medical application of PGD, while small, does exist and it's increasing. As Jeff Steinberg of LA's Fertility Institutes says, "This is cosmetic medicine...Others are frightened by the criticism but we have no problems with it." Trait selection in babies "is a service," says Dr. Steinberg, and "[w]e intend to offer it soon."

    The WSJ article prompted respond with a list of reasons why human trait selection is an important topic today:
    1. It’s a hive of ethical issues
    2. The technology isn’t here yet
    3. We all have a stake in the issue
    4. Questions raised go beyond designer babies
    "I love the topic of designer babies," writes Hinsch, "because difficult questions need to be asked about all kinds of emerging technologies from nanotechnology to therapeutic and reproductive human cloning." It can be overwhelming, she ways, "but the only thing we can count on is change–that the nature of the technology will evolve while the challenges remain."

    According to Hinsch there are some key questions that need to be answered as we move forward:
    • Should we ban it?
    • Should we regulate the technology to allow only certain applications?
    • Should we promote the widespread use of this technology?
    Some believe, for example, that genetic modification holds tremendous promise for preventing genetic diseases and that society should pursue policies to promote or encourage its use in the future, despite what other sideline “designer” applications are developed as a result.

    There's no question that these are challenging isues. But what's important right now, argues Hinsch, is that we get the conversation started.

    February 11, 2009

    Thinking faster by altering your perception of time - A SentDev Classic

    This article from April 3, 2006 was inspired by the work of David Eagleman who will be guest blogging here next week.

    People who undergo extreme short-term psychological stress often claim that time slowed down for them during the experience. Traumatic events like car accidents or lengthy falls often appear in slow motion to the person experiencing it.

    Is this just a recall error? Or are people literally experiencing these events at an altered subjective time rate? If so, how could such a psychological phenomenon be accounted for? Obviously, time is not really slowing down -- but something is happening to the psychological interpretation of time.

    One possible answer is to compare the human brain's "clockspeed" to that of a computer's. Some scientists now suspect that slowed time elapsement is an evolved defence mechanism similar to our fight-or-flight response. When time appears to have slowed down, we have more subjective time in which to deal with a crisis situation. Put another way, extreme stress helps us to think faster.

    One scientist looking into this phenomenon is David Eagleman from the University of Texas at Houston. At his 'Laboratory for Perception and Action' Eagleman is attempting to understand the neural mechanisms of time perception. His team combines psychophysical, behavioural, and computational approaches to address the relationship between the timing of perception and the timing of neural signals.

    At the experimental level, Eagleman is engaged in exploring temporal encoding, time warping, manipulations of the perception of causality, and time perception in high-adrenaline situations. Ultimately, he hopes to use this data to explore how neural signals processed by different brain regions come together for a temporally unified picture of the world.

    In one of his experiments, Eagleman had volunteers perform a backwards bungee jump freefall while he transmitted a rapid succession of numbers to an LED on their wrists. He found that during the fall they were successfully able to read the numbers, which under normal conditions would have appeared too fast. [I have to say, that is one of the most interesting and original experiments I've heard of in quite time some]

    Thinking about Eagleman's research at a practical level, it is thought that a better understanding of these mechanisms will result in interventions that will help people process information at higher rates. This kind of 'think faster' augmentation would slow time down in a subjective sense, which would enable an individual to operate at a higher level of cognitive efficiency.

    This theme has been explored in a number of science fiction stories. In Frank Herbert's Chapterhouse: Dune, the ghola Miles Teg was able to engage in extremely fast physical combat due to his ability to rapidly process information. Teg was able to subjectively experience time in extreme slow motion. Similarly, Neo in The Matrix was able to dodge bullets by altering his perception of time elapsement. And in Greg Egan's Diaspora, uploaded posthumans had to drastically slow down their internal clockspeeds when conversing with biological humans; clockspeeds in the real world varied dramatically from the clockspeed utilized in supercomputer 'polises.' Also in Diaspora, a group of posthumans altered their perception of time to such a slow rate that they could perceive the rising and fallings of geological structures such as mountains.

    Here in the real world, such neural enhancements are rare, but not entirely impossible. It is thought, for example, that hockey ultrastar Wayne Gretzky was able to perceive the flow of the game at a slower pace than his competitors, giving him more subjective time to plan his attack. This may in fact be the case. At the height of his career, Gretzky was not just a 'little better' than other players, he was dominating to a degree never before seen in sport, breaking records by extreme margins. And this from a player who was physically unremarkable--in fact, below average.

    Just what kinds of interventions could enable humans to 'warp time' is a topic of some speculation. A recent Discover article titled "The Mind in Overdrive" offers some possible solutions. Psychotropic substances are one possible answer, as drugs like cocaine and amphetamines have been known to alter subjective time for users. Also, meditating Buddhist monks claim to be able to perceive time differently; through their mental discipline, they may be recreating the same effect that Eagleman is documenting.

    I'm certainly hoping that something like this will eventually become accessible. It will be interesting to see how much more productive and "aware" one might be with the benefit of these sorts of interventions. It may even create an alternative sense of subjective reality.

    And it would surely come in handy the next time you need to dodge bullets.

    Neuroscientist David Eagleman guest blogging on Sentient Developments next week

    I've got a real treat in store for you guys: renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman will be guest blogging here for one week starting this coming Monday February 16.

    Dr. Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action as well as the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law.

    His interests focus largely on how the brain constructs reality and how different brains do so differently. To this end he uses psychophysics, neuroimaging and computational simulations.

    He is the author of several books, including the upcoming Dethronement, an exploration of the work the brain does behind the scenes, and Wednesday is Indigo Blue, a book about synesthesia, a condition in which the senses are mixed.

    His research has been featured on Discovery Channel, History Channel, BBC, ABC, PBS, and in major print media. Dr. Eagleman is the founder of several companies, and three years ago founded the Eagleman Prize in mathematics and physics.

    Dr. Eagleman has long been interested in transhumanism and the concept of 'silicon immortality.' He was a recent contributor to the Edge.org's Big Question, "What will change everything?," to which he responded:
    "While medicine will advance in the next half century, we are not on a crash-course for achieving immortality by curing all disease. Bodies simply wear down with use. We are on a crash-course, however, with technologies that let us store unthinkable amounts of data and run gargantuan simulations. Therefore, well before we understand how brains work, we will find ourselves able to digitally copy the brain's structure and able to download the conscious mind into a computer."
    His book of fiction, Sum, debuted internationally this month.

    It's going to be an exciting and provocative week with David Eagleman on board. Don't miss it.

    February 10, 2009

    Improve your performance with energy drinks

    I've started to do something I once swore I'd never do: I'm hittin' the energy drinks.

    I realize it's not the healthiest habit in the world, but this stuff works. And it's solved my afternoon drowsiness problem -- a time of day when I desperately need to be sharp and alert.

    You've likely seen these products on store shelves and advertised as sports or health drinks. Popular brands include Red Bull, Rockstar, Monster and Amp energy drinks. They typically come in 250ml and 500ml varieties, but you can also get them as shots, such as the 5 Hour Energy Drink.

    I'm actually quite amazed at how well these drinks work. As someone who routinely looks for an enhancement edge, I have to admit that energy drinks deliver. The beneficial effects that these beverages induce aren't just placebo; a growing body of clinical evidence supports the claim that energy drinks have a positive impact on both physiological and psychological performance.

    So, if you're looking to improve your alertness and mental acuity when you need it, you may want to consider energy drinks. Just make sure you don't over do it.

    Positive and negative effects of energy drinks

    Energy drinks, which are typically laden with caffeine, taurine, ginseng and guarana, can improve mental and cognitive performance as well as increase subjective alertness. I can certainly vouch for these effects; after one drink I almost immediately feel the drowsiness dissipate. My mood is given a bit of a lift and I can re-focus on the task at hand.

    Clearly, the benefits of these drinks can be applied across many different areas. For those who spend a lot of time behind the wheel, for example, these beverages can improve driving performance in the form of reduced lane drifting and increased reaction times.

    Physically, they can increase upper body muscle endurance, which, in addition to an apparent 'energy boost' (which I think is actually just subjective clarity and mild euphoria) has contributed to its prevalent use in gym culture.

    The effects of taurine in particular is fascinating. It's an organic acid that can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and is responsible for a wide array of physiological phenomena including inhibitory neurotransmission, membrane stabilization and the prevention of oxidative stress induced by exercise. Taurine also acts as an antioxidant and protects against toxicity of various substances (such as lead and cadmium).

    On the negative side, excess consumption can induce mild to moderate euphoria (which may or may not be a bad thing) that is primarily caused by the stimulant properties of caffeine and sugar. Energy drinks can also cause agitation, anxiety, irritability and insomnia. Energy drinks have been linked with reports of nausea, abnormal heart rhythms and emergency room visits.

    There have even been deaths attributed to energy drinks, but these cases have typically involved severe over-use and are complicated by other factors.

    Growing popularity of energy drinks

    I have been very strict about my usage. I limit myself to one 250ml sugar free drink per day. It gets me through the afternoon and it has a positive impact on my productivity.

    And I'm not alone. It has become very common for students to consume energy drinks to increase their concentration as they study throughout the night, leading some to suggest that energy drinks are the coffee of a new generation.

    Usage is through the roof. According to a 2008 report by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 1.5 billion cans of Red Bull were sold in the United States in 2004. Consumption in Canada is comparable and it is a growing trend for 18-to 24-year-olds.

    And this market segment is broadening as younger children are beginning to consume these drinks before engaging in physical activity (it doesn't help that the manufacturers are targeting young people, including the Cocaine Energy Drink). Unfortunately, this isn't such a good idea; energy drinks don't hydrate the body efficiently because they have too much sugar, while the caffeine doesn't necessarily improve physical performance. In fact, high quantities can increase the risks of fatigue and dehydration.

    Moderation and common sense

    My advice is to minimize usage and only use it for specific applications. And don't get into the habit of mixing it with alcohol (or drugs) as the combined effects will work over-time to dehydrate your body. Worse, you'll likely end up drinking more because you feel so good and alert.

    Like any good thing in life, moderation is the key. Avoid energy drinks altogether if you can. For me, it's solved a problem and I haven't noticed any detrimental side effects. I'll continue to consume these drinks until I feel they're no longer serving a purpose or they start to impact negatively on my health.

    And in the meantime I'll enjoy these drinks and the benefits that they bring.