The biggest question hovering over her work is how to unlock the incredible potential that exists within our brains. It wasn’t so long ago that humans took a very rigid view of this three pound organ, but new science has revolutionised the way we understand the brain and its capabilities. Through her work with people who posses savant syndrome and synaesthesia Brogaard has come to understand that not everyone needs to be Rain Man to have a genius IQ, but that in fact we all have the capacity for brilliance lying dormant within us.
In her recent book, The Superhuman Mind: Free the Genius in Your Brain Brogaard talks about a brave new world in which we can expect to see new drugs and technology that will help to harness our extraordinary abilities. Prepare for the age of the super-brain.
Perhaps we can start with your background and where you began.
I stared working with synaesthesia, which is an atypical binding of senses. So one example is the linking of sounds and colours, sometimes that results in a kind of colour hearing – people can actually hear colours in some way. I have a form of synaesthesia myself so I have been interested in it since I was a child, although I did not know the name at the time. Later on I wanted to examine it in a lab so we started the synaesthesia lab. We noticed that some of the subjects didn’t quite fit into the group studies that we were conducting at the time because their synaesthesia was very different from the standard kind of synaesthesia and they also had special abilities. So we decided to develop these case studies instead of group studies and that led to work on acquired synaesthesia and acquired savant syndrome. Since then we’ve conducted a number of case studies for acquired savant syndrome an acquired synaesthesia, and we’ve looked at techniques that can help develop those abilities. So that’s where we are now.
One of those people you came across was a man called Jason Padgett. Apparently his story is now due to be turned into a movie, but you were there first in terms of analysing his abilities.
Yeah he was one of the case studies who contacted us. He didn’t quite fit for our group study but he was super interesting. His was not the kind of synaesthesia that people have from birth but it was acquired through a brain injury. He was seeing patterns, shapes and mathematical forms in response to his environment. After he recovered from his injury he had a three year period where he isolated himself completely and sat in his apartment not doing anything at all except observing the world, but then he started drawing what he saw. He was a college dropout but he enrolled in community college and took some basic maths courses and realised that some of shapes he was seeing were ways of determining these mathematical formulas that he had to deal with in college. We looked at his response to mathematical formulas in a number of different ways. We did some brain scans on him and using MRI and we also used a method called transcranial magnetic simulation (TMS) to look at the areas that were responsive to his synaesthesia and special mathematical insight.
"[Jason Padgett] had a three year period where he isolated himself completely and sat in his apartment not doing anything at all except observing the world, but then he started drawing what he saw."
Berit Brogaard recounts head injury patient Jason Padgett's new talent
So how does your work in philosophy tie into all of this?
So I started out in neuroscience and eventually ended up in philosophy. In the meantime I did some cognitive linguistics. I was very interested in consciousness so I went and studied with David Chalmers who is one of the leading figures in consciousness research. He’s based at NYU now but was at the time in Australia. I was interested in aspects of consciousness and later found out that some of the main theories about consciousness don’t quite fit these people who have synaesthesia, particularly those who have savant syndrome, and that includes acquired savant syndrome but also autistic savants. You couldn’t completely say that the theories didn’t work at all but they were not capturing consciousness completely.
There was an interesting way in which some of the case studies and group studies we were conducting were functioning as a counter argument to some of the leading theories of consciousness. So that was an interesting tension that grew out of the basic research I had. I also had an interest in what the brain is capable of, and there were theories of that too in philosophy where I could again use the case studies to show that they can’t be quite right. There’s a whole approach in philosophy where talent and cognitive ability. . . well they’re not denying learning, but they’re saying you’re born with a certain brain potential and within that you have a certain limit to what you can learn. But the case studies we looked at have shown that that’s not quite the case because we have very ordinary individuals who end up hurting their heads and developing abilities that far exceed the normal range.
So this ties nicely into your book, The Superhuman Mind. There’s a lot of hype around the word ‘neuroplasticity.’ Do you think that perhaps Western society has been looking at the brain in the wrong way for a long time? And do you think that philosophy has contributed to this fixed view of the way the brain is seen?
I certainly think that philosophers have in the past have fallen behind in terms of their understanding of brain plasticity. Many neuroscientists have also had a fixed view of the brain for a long time, but they eventually came to realise that the brain is quite plastic and if someone loses the ability to speak because of damage in the language centre on the left side of the brain, then the language centre might link to another part of the brain, on the right side of the brain. In philosophy a lot of the theories were anchored in the old fashioned view that saw the brain and the mind as fixed, and that of course was following psychology and biology for many years where the same view was held. But for some reason it took philosophers a bit more time to catch up with this new way of thinking about the brain and the mind.
"We have very ordinary individuals who end up hurting their heads and developing abilities that far exceed the normal range."
So your premise is that we all have unused bandwidth in our brains that we can unlock?
Yes most of us have those potentials because we could all be in situations like the one that Jason Padgett had been in where you hit your head. Of course it’s rare, but in some circumstances that triggers changes in the brain and unlocks a potential that was already there.
Do you think society has adjusted to the idea that we can use this potential? Has a public discourse already started in the media?
The discussion has started but I don’t think it’s an idea that a lot of people are fully comprehending yet. The idea of brain plasticity is very well rounded, but by plasticity a lot of people think that means just that if you have a stroke you can recover. But the idea that we can exceed what is normal for human beings is a rather new thing for a lot of people. Discussions have started but it’s still a rather new and controversial idea in a lot of circles.
What do you think of the overused and often cited as incorrect phrase “we only use 10 percent of our brains”?
Yeah that’s an old idea. It can be understood in a number of different ways and if you understand it straightforwardly then it would be false. If you mean that we have parts of the brain tissue not working on anything in particular then it’s completely false because brain tissue that’s not working on anything simply wastes away. But there are ways to interpret this phrase. One is that we have dormant information in the brain. Dormant in the sense that we don’t have constant access to certain parts of our brain and we only use about 10 percent in a conscious way when we have will power. There are also dormant areas of our brain that cannot be used below the level of conscious awareness. It’s still kept active to the extent that the brain doesn’t waste away.
Then there’s the interpretation that the brain has a certain potential and we only use a certain amount of our potential. When we say that there’s something right about the idea that we only use 10 percent of our brains, it’s because if we could see the potential then that’s right. That’s a lot of potential that is not used. And it’s also correct to say that there’s a lot of dormant activity in the brain that could be accessed if we had the means to do so.
How are drugs and pharmaceuticals working at the moment to try and unlock some of this potential? Do you envisage a future where drugs can help bring us to a place where we have superhuman brains?
There are drugs out there that when we’ve tested them we’ve seen can bring out some of this potential. So the one drug we have tested initially is psilocybin. It’s a psychedelic component of magic mushrooms but in the purified state. With a one-time exposure of a heavy dose of psilocybin – (from its start to when it completely wears off is about 24 hours) – we find extra talent in people after 14 months. They have not continued to take the drug, but 14 months later they still have these effects from the drug.
What kind of effects?
Very often similar effects to the effects of those who have hurt their heads in injuries. It’s often an ability to paint, or write poetry, in some cases enhanced abilities in math. Beyond our research I should mention that there have been other research groups that have studied the effects of these drugs on depression and anxiety. We know enough about the brain to develop smart drugs that are very specific, but what we don’t yet have is technology for those drugs. When you give a person a drug, let’s say you give them a pill, we know that we want to increase the serotonin in a particular area of the brain, but the pill is not only going to go to that area. It’s also going to go to a number of other areas in the brain. So what we need is something that does not exist yet, something that is engineered, like a Nano-bot, a little piece of computer equipment that you can attach to each molecule of the drug and that somehow stops the drug, (it might be photo sensitive), from binding to unwanted areas, and then when it finds the right area of the brain it detaches itself from the drug, allowing the drug to then bind to that area. That’s something that has not been developed yet but you can see that if we can formulate the idea then it shouldn’t take too long for engineers to produce something like that.
"We have dormant information in the brain. Dormant in the sense that we don’t have constant access to certain parts of our brain and we only use about 10 percent in a conscious way."
Is there any part of this that sounds dangerous to you? At the moment you’re looking at savants and people with synaesthesia, but where does this discussion start to get a little bit murky in terms of ethics?
This type of technology that I’m talking about could take the drugs that we have for something like depression and make them more specific and hit target areas more specifically. The question is where to stop. Should you just cure people of depression and anxiety? Or should you also try to develop people’s brains when they don’t suffer from any obvious illnesses? Should you try to make people smarter?
I think that the danger lies in the side effects. The more specific you can make the drug, the less of a problem I see. The problem arises when you have these drugs that in some areas of the brain can make people smarter but may also affect areas in the brain that make people less affectionate or unable to make moral decisions. Then you have something very dangerous, whereas if you are able to keep normal human empathy, and affection, and moral decision making, but just make people smarter, then I’m less worried.
So I know a lot of this is speculation, but do you think that superhuman abilities lie dormant in most humans? Or are we inhibited by our own cognitive limitations?
We are obviously inhibited in various ways. The inhibition that prevents us from being more creative is located in the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex has developed in an evolutionary fashion to suppress artistic talent, because if you have a very strong pre-frontal cortex you can make very rational decisions, and that has played an important role in the evolution of human beings. So in order to access the parts of ourselves that are more artistic, more original, and more creative, we would have to sacrifice some of the rational decision making. In terms of discussion of this I think there is probably a strong sense among some people that you shouldn’t try to mess with the human species, but a lot of people forget that we are already doing that in a number of different ways, whether it’s by preventing diseases or by putting artificial hearts into people. We are always messing with nature in some sense. I don’t see why we should stop with physical function and performance. Why shouldn’t we also try to enhance the brain in similar ways?
"With a one-time exposure of a heavy dose of psilocybin - we find extra talent in people after 14 months. They have not continued to take the drug, but 14 months later they still have these effects from the drug."
Berit Brogaard discussing the affect of psychedelic on the brain.
Some of the examples in your book revolve around people who have suffered trauma and react in creative ways. Do you think that creativity is undervalued in our culture?
Yes. Human beings have developed a very strong pre-frontal cortex that is useful for logical thinking, abstract thinking, rational decision making and so forth, but our culture is also cultivating that part of the brain in the way that we’re educated, and in the way we’re expected to behave. In our educational system we have a much stronger focus on areas that are associated with logical thinking and rational decision making, and only a little bit of focus on creativity and being artistic. So yeah, the pre-frontal cortex makes rational decisions and engages in abstract thinking in the way that it has both evolved to do and in the way in which we cultivate it to perform.
What is the work that you want to focus on next?
At the moment we are looking for different drugs that may be able to induce similar skills to the ones found in acquired savants. That’s one aspect. There’s also another aspect of the work and that’s the focus on personality, because a lot of the subjects in our case studies have undergone a change in their personalities, in most cases for the better, in some cases not. But changing personality is something that has been thought rather hard to do, so what we’re trying to learn is, what would it take to become more optimistic? Or how about if you wanted to become more extroverted? Or have more empathy? The whole personality aspect has been less of a focus in the media but in almost all of these cases we’ve looked at we’ve seen personality changes, and those changes are the kind that are not normally thought to occur.
You’re really talking about hacking the physiology of the human. Is that right?
Yeah you could put it that way. There are lots of other areas of research concerned with hacking the physiology of the body. People have studied extensively how to make people stronger, better performers in sports and so on, what we’re trying to look closer at is a way of hacking the brain.
What question would you love to answer in your work?
I would like to have more development of these new brain connections that sap into areas that were previously unused in some cases, or make new connections in the brain. And once we know that that is the correct mechanism we can begin to use methods like magnetic stimulation, electric stimulation and drugs that can help people access these special skills in the future. So getting more confirmation for that mechanism and going to the next step where we’re actually developing drugs and technologies that can help ordinary people access more dormant areas of the brain. That would be a really huge step forward.
You put some mental games in your book. What are some of the things that people reading this article could work on? A lot of people talk about meditation and its medical advantages on the brain. Is there anything you recommend to improve the general health of the brain?
Yeah there are a number of methods you could use. One of them in terms of artistic talent is to learn to wilfully downplay the role of the pre-frontal cortex. You can attempt to interpret everything and not dwell on the perception, not study your perception of experiences through the senses as much. One of the ways in which people actually acquire special talent both in autistic savants and acquired savants is that they don’t have to go in and turn off their pre-frontal cortex, they’re able to use their perceptual experiences more literally without interpreting them even before they, in a metaphorical sense, look at them. So by being more aware of the sense and your perceptions. There are various things you can do to cultivate that.