Hacking the brain at Lisbon Maker Faire

Ciência Viva organised a very interesting event during the Lisbon Maker Faire at Pavilhão do Conhecimento in Lisbon

The Lisbon Maker Faire at Pavilhão do Conhecimento in (18-20 September 2015) was the setting of a very rewarding NERRI event: Andrew Vladimirov  and Martin Dinov, two brain hackers from the London Brain Hackers (https://wiki.london.hackspace.org.uk/view/Brain_hackers), travelled to Lisbon to show and discuss different types of brain interfaces and brain stimulation devices. The event was a great opportunity to experiment NE devices, in particular, to confront potential users with an actual experience of NE. Importantly, seeing and using the devices prompted rich and complex discussions of its limitations and implications. This turned out to be an unpremeditated but genuine mutual mobilization and learning exercise, with lots of learning for all – the hackers, the public and Ciência Viva.

The host event itself, Lisbon Maker Faire, welcomed around 15 000 extremely passionate participants. For three days, makers, hackers, artists and the public engaged in face to face interaction, trying apps, tools, and machines for work, research, sports or entertainment.

Andrew and Martin brought to Pavilhão do Conhecimento a combination of open and commercial devices for assessment of brain metabolism, and for brain stimulation. Some of these devices are undergoing clinical trials for depression and anxiety treatment, with apparent success; others were developed in a more DIY fashion. Most notably among the latter was a device for concurrent stimulation that could be fed with different signals – including recorded brain waves corresponding to different “moods”. Interaction with the devices is made with open source software running in common PCs, smartphones and tablets.

During the event, several dozens of people were able to try the brain interfaces. Volunteers would, for instance, choose a desired state of mind – relaxed, focused, energized, etc. First, their baseline brain activity was established using one of the brain “reading” tools. With this information, the selected state of mind was then modulated through electric, magnetic or infrared laser signals and transmitted to their brains via headbands or simple electrodes.

 Lisbon Maker Faire

A stunned TV journalist starts an interview with Andrew Vladimirov saying that brain hacking makes us think of science fiction. In fact the opposite is true, these technologies are here, relatively accessible, and based on devices that most people use – common PCs, smartphones, tablets, apps.

Andrew and Martin were extremely surprised by the public’s interest, curiosity, even enthusiasm to engage and try their gadgets – and to discuss their implications. “It is remarkable that we had quite a lot of volunteers not only for measurement, but also for stimulation, and no one has objected to what we do. NERRI should be quite happy about it”. One of them compared the Maker Faire public with publics he knows in other national contexts, usually business people looking for new commercial products: “Sometimes people are very materialistic”, he claimed, “They’re only interested in making money from these devices”. Here, however, people wanted to discuss the science and the mechanisms of these technologies, as well as the issues they raise. Of course, Maker Faires attract mostly geeks, people with a more inquisitive inclination who obviously like to try anything with buttons and knobs on it. But the comparison makes explicit two seemingly opposite sets of values and motivations that underlie technologies of the self like neuro-enhancement: competitiveness vs. self-experiment and play. NERRI is trying to map how these contrasting values are played out across national contexts, or perhaps across different groups within the countries.

Another trend noticed by Andrew and Martin was that while most people didn’t object to trying the devices, many stated they would be much more careful with drugs and wouldn’t try any. Again, the hackers compared the experience with the Maker public with publics in other settings, which are usually afraid of tech, and "don't really know how electricity works". Perhaps they still associate these devices with the notorious electroshock therapies of time past, a comparison that doesn’t make any sense for a geeky public. Can this be interpreted as a problem of control, the brain hackers asked? Perhaps people fear losing control with drugs, while they feel that they control the devices. Maybe people think that they know what the machines do since they can see them working and can stop them at any time. Drugs, on the other hand, remain hidden in the organism for long periods – who knows what their long-term effects may be?

But isn’t it the case that pharmaceutical drugs are heavily regulated while devices are mostly on the loose? For our brain hackers, this view is not exact. Andrew explains that development of NE devices, on the contrary, is "hard" and expensive mostly because of regulation. Devices are more regulated and regulation is more complex than in the case of drugs. Each part of a given technology has specific regulation – for instance, the operating system has to be certified for clinical uses, the same goes for different components of a device, plus patent regulation, etc. Also, it is hard to engage medical practitioners to use and test NE devices to comply with regulation requirements because they usually don't have the knowledge and interest about electronic mechanisms.

There is certainly much room for discussion here, but we were surprised how such a rich debate on ethical and social implications of neuro-enhancement arose spontaneously in this hands-on, geeky environment.