The time that we currently find ourselves in is both sombre and surreal; the COVID-19 crisis has ushered in a state of uncertainty so real and so hard to fathom that many people are responding to this situation with panic, fear and anxiety.
Even though we cannot control the unprecedented crisis that COVID19 brings us. One thing that we might be able to manage during such a time is our own personal response. Mental health has become a more pertinent issue than ever, especially surrounding recent events.
Neuroscientists such as Jay Sanguinetti out of the University of Arizona is visibly shocked at what he’s seeing but through his work, sees this as a vital opportunity to really do his part.
For years, he has been working on a unique novel technology that is able to in effect, shift the brain into a calmer state – allowing people to find new pathways to absorb such shocks. By using ultrasonic waves with pinpoint accuracy, he can target specific parts of your brain in order to slow it down and help people awaken to their true potential.
Jay is on the cusp on what could be a monumental shift in how we treat people with mental health. See it as electroshock therapy 2.0 without any of the nasty side effects. The results so far have been very promising and more than ever, technologies like this can offer promise to millions of people who succumb to panic, depression and chronic pain daily.
We talk to Jay to get the download on what this superpower could mean for a global population during a time like this.
I wish we were speaking under more favourable circumstances; I’m interested to know from a consciousness point of view when seven billion people are thinking about one thing, what are the repercussions?
Yes, I have a couple of thoughts on this; there’s a theory called terror management. It’s a post-Freudian theory. It takes the notion in psychology that we’re repressing our sexuality, but replaces that with repressing a fear of our own death. If you provoke people to reflect on their own death, they behave differently. The notion of terror management is that we are the only animal that can think so far into the future that we can think about our death.
If I were to contemplate my death all day, I would just cower in the corner and not do anything productive. So we have these built-in psychological mechanisms to push down that scary information so that we can carry on with normal life. I think on a global scale we’re being confronted by the fact that we could die tomorrow. You could get this scary virus that we barely understand.
No one can feel it or see it, or touch it, but it feels like there is kind of a global resonance around it as well. But I don’t know if that’s an actual thing.
As a scientist, my background is in the philosophy of science; there is a notion by the philosopher called Thomas Kuhn, who inspired me; he talked about paradigm shifts. A paradigm in science is, for example, that the Earth is the centre of the universe. That’s one paradigm. Then that evidence changed when we learned that the Earth revolves around the solar system.
So I think those paradigms work on a mental scale as well. In the United States, we believe we’re the best in the world, we’re the innovators, and nothing can hurt us. That’s our paradigm. And that paradigm is being shaken to the core right now. I think the coronavirus is doing that to each society. It’s going around and exposing the weaknesses that we all know we have because we have the psychological mechanisms that are causing us to force that down.
I think if we can work together as a global people and figure out how to “flatten the curve” as people are saying, and get on top of this, it will give us a chance to elevate beyond this and start thinking about what kind of people do we want to be in terms of this crisis. How can we change our lives when we come out of this? I think the worst case is that we just get ahead of it, and then we go back to normal. Going back to normal means polluting the environment as much as we were, allowing the rich to extract all the money as they’ve been doing.
“In the United States, we believe we’re the best in the world, we’re the innovators, and nothing can hurt us. That’s our paradigm. And that paradigm is being shaken to the core right now.”
Dealing with a crisis and a moment like this right now it strikes me as such an interesting time to be doing your work. If I understand it correctly, you have devised a way to introduce non-invasive brain stimulation to accelerate, the enlightenment process of people. Is that correct?
Yes, in some ways, but enlightenment is hard to define, I would say the goal is to help people use this technology to dramatically transform their inner experience in a very positive direction. We want to help people go from having debilitating chronic pain and disrupting their life, to transforming the way that they relate to their pain so that they can come out the other side and say, in essence, yes, I have that debilitating pain, but I’m extremely happy. Giving people that transformation so that they can deal with living in the world.
We’re talking about the coronavirus which is massively disrupting our lives, and it’s terrifying. So we want to give people the tools to deal with the world, whatever the world is, that is confronting them and causing suffering. We’re giving them the internal mental skills to face that world in a way that’s adaptive and leads them to a happier and more fulfilling life.
Acoustic simulation model on a representative CT scan of a male patient
So essentially you’re using ultrasonic tools to focus on different areas of the brain, but for our readers can you give us a basic technical overview of how you plan to do this and what you’ve been doing?
Sure, so the basic idea is to accelerate mindfulness training. So the end goal is not necessarily enlightenment or self-transformation. In the lab, the goal in the first stages we’re just asking, can we accelerate the benefits and the effects of mindfulness training? So, first of all, you have to define mindfulness training. In the literature, that’s a tough thing to explain because there are lots of different types of mindfulness practice. But the way that we view mindfulness is basically as a set of attention skills.
So the idea is to identify the brain systems that are involved in learning these attention skills, and then using a form of brain stimulation so they can accelerate the learning in those brain areas. So really it’s a learning paradigm and stimulating that learning paradigm.
Most people would think about stimulating the brain or modulating the brain with electricity, such as electroshock therapy. The problem with those is that it’s very non-focal. It’s very hard to target electricity in one spot in the brain because the electricity just travels all over the brain. So what we’ve done is actually looked at mechanical energy – we’re using ultrasound. You can focus ultrasound intensely into the brain, basically onto any spot, and you can oscillate, very gently the neurons to change their activity. Now if you do it at a higher intensity, of course, you damage the brain.
If we do it right, we can gently oscillate those brain areas while the person is learning these mindfulness skills, and we can help the brain learn those skills faster.
“You can focus ultrasound intensely into the brain, basically onto any spot, and you can oscillate, very gently the neurons to change their activity.”
Some would say this is a form of transhumanism?
I’ve considered myself a transhumanist at least most of my reading life. I’ve been reading transhumanist books since I was a kid, and sci-fi was always my favourite literature by far. Having said that, I moved to Silicon Valley two years ago, and I started a company around this idea of using ultrasound as a brain stimulation accelerant for mindfulness. It’s funny; I was a sincere believer of transhumanism. I was a deep believer that technology was going to save us from the climate catastrophe that we’re headed towards. But after living in the bay area for 6-months, all those assumptions were turned on their head. I’m still going through a bit of a grieving process myself. I’m not sure I would call myself a transhumanist anymore because I don’t know if technology alone is enough to save humanity. There has to be a type of humanism added on top.
Are you essentially saying that you can bypass those formative years of meditation training, or at least take a shortcut because something tells me that those initial years are instrumental?
At this point with the tech that we have, we don’t think that we can bypass or shortcut the process. There will still be mental training, and there will still be a mindfulness practice, that will be a lot of effort. Mindfulness is very effortful for anyone who has tried it like yourself. What we’re hoping is that we can actually remove some of the impediments to the training.
What we’re trying to do is inhibit a part of the brain that deals with that chatty voice for example. We’re not turning it off forever; we’re turning it down for 10 to 15 minutes. So that person can get out of bed. So we’re talking about a depressed person who literally can’t get out of bed some days, and helping them get out of bed and experience the world without that negative voice.
So how do you know the type of mindfulness enhancement that you are advocating is the same as traditional meditation?
That is a profound question and gets to the heart of this, the science is young. One of the things we’re doing in the lab is designing psychological and neurological metrics to try and understand, what mindfulness and meditation are doing to the cognitive and biological substrates of the brain and the mind. So independent of brain stimulation, we need to know that. We’re creating a sophisticated neuroimaging device. We have to do that on an individual basis because every brain is different.
We think we can accelerate the meditation training. But we don’t want to disrupt your memory, or your sleep, or your ability to recall words, for example. We have to be very careful about that because the more powerful our brain stimulation becomes, the more likely we are to create side effects. And that’s just because the brain is the most complicated machine in the universe. And it’s this highly interconnected system of clocks and oscillation, and if you start messing with one clock, you will disrupt some of the other clocks.
“It’s a technology that doesn’t make people happy according to Western standards, but a technology that makes people deeply happy, independent of their cultural norms, and can kind of unlock that form of happiness and consciousness on a deeper level. “
Let’s say this works, let’s say it doesn’t, what would you like to achieve with this newly found superpower that you have? I mean ultimately I would obviously like to see 3 billion people switched on and creating this urgent need for revelation inside and love and all this, but even more so just a trick of the light just to show them.
A technology that can enable each person a fulfilled and happy life, that’s the kind of technology I want to create. It’s a technology that doesn’t make people happy according to Western standards, but a technology that makes people deeply happy, independent of their cultural norms, and can unlock that form of happiness and consciousness on a deeper level.
That’s why I say I don’t think it has to be a technology. It could be the technology of mindfulness; it could be psychedelic medicine. I think it’s probably going to be a lot of these things that awaken people to that form of existence. It’s possible for me to wake up and for me to be free of the fear of coronavirus, and the fear of my own death. I can wake up from all of that, and I can realise that it’s just a human game, that these are just concepts and notions, and I can gain some freedom from that.
Well, my dream scenario for this technology would be where an individual with an addiction problem or just someone who wants to come to a retreat has this technology administered. They would then be able to get that taste of freedom. After two weeks you would notice a change in their motivation, then the next two weeks sync into this, listening to the birds and realising that the birds can be an overwhelming beauty. These people would go home and become motivated to do this without any intervention. They would probably come back every six months or every year because I don’t think it would last.
Why because the force is too strong?
The force is way too strong, especially in a world where we’re constantly being bombarded.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes.
Please check out Jay’s lab for updates.