Sunday, July 17, 2011

Brain Overclocking: Living a More Intense Life

Neurons recruited for local computations exhibit rhythmic activity at gamma frequencies. The amplitude and frequency of these oscillations are continuously modulated depending on stimulus and behavioral state. This modulation is believed to crucially control information flow across cortical rapidly balancing excitation with inhibition, the hippocampal network is able to swiftly modulate gamma oscillations over a wide band of frequencies. _ScienceDirect

Besides finding ways to prolong one's life, it would be worthwhile to find ways to live one's life more intensely. We have discussed ways in which we might reduce the amount of time spent in sleep, without suffering from diminished mental or physical health. There are also everyday ways in which a person can intensify his experience of his waking time. Some examples are listed at the end of this piece.

From the neurocognitive standpoint, the concept of the controlled "overclocking" of the brain -- speeding up the functioning of brain processes so that more can be experienced and accomplished in less time -- is just coming into the realm of possiblity. The concept, once developed, will rest upon a sound understanding of brain processing and inter-brain communications.
Brain activity changes between different brain states, whether awake, asleep, drugged, etc. Besides the activation of different centers in the brain according to brain state, the actual speed (frequency) of brain activity varies with different brain states.

It is thought that synchronous oscillations involving gamma carrier waves (30 to 100 Hz) modulated by theta frequencies (4 to 8 Hz) allow multiple brain processes to occur, including the transfer of working memory to long-term memory, and the binding of different sensory or other inputs into a coherent mental image of an object or idea. In other words, the way the oscillations of the brain are organised on a moment to moment basis, is what allows us to "think" and remember. (see Working Memory: The Importance of Theta and Gamma Oscillations, Lisman, Current Biology Vol 20 No 11)
Gamma oscillations are thought to transiently link distributed cell assemblies that are processing related information1, 2, a function that is probably important for network processes such as perception1, 2, 3, attentional selection4 and memory5, 6. This 'binding' mechanism requires that spatially distributed cells fire together with millisecond range precision7, 8; _Nature
The idea of a synchronous oscillator, or "clock", involved in thinking and memory suggests the possibility of "speeding up the clock" or "overclocking," analogous to the overclocking of a computer processor to achieve higher computing speeds. In reality, of course, things work much differently in the brain, and no central processing unit is available for safe and controlled overclocking.

But we do know that the top end of the gamma "carrier wave" frequency can vary between types of animals. Some kinds of insects, for example, exhibit brain synchrony at frequencies up to 200 Hz in certain circuits. (Kirschfeld PNAS USA Vol. 89, pp. 4764-4768, May 1992 Neurobiology)

Different frequencies of gamma oscillation serve to connect different brain centers, in practise. This allows for simultaneous parallel activity between multiple circuits. Therefore, when "overclocking," one must be sure not to "step on" the frequencies used by different brain circuits.

There are a number of other cautions, assuming that one had a good idea how to begin to go about ramping up gamma oscillation carrier wave frequencies in the first place. The intricacy of neuronal signaling of brain circuits should discourage any attempts to permanently alter neuronal oscillatory activity. For example, gamma frequencies are closely controlled and modulated by inhibitory interneurons. You cannot change the timing of one type of cell and expect to maintain a system of smooth communication between brain nuclei. Rather, multiple keys that control the timing of networks across the brain will have to be discovered and mastered.

Why should we bother to attempt something which will require so much work? It is possible, after all, to intensify the experience of everyday life without resorting to the extremes of genetic modification of the brain.

Below are some of the everyday means by which some persons provide themselves with temporary experiences of high intensity consciousness:

Pharmacological brain stimulants have been used for this purpose for centuries, but in general they extract a steep price from the user who does not exercise prudence. Veterans of combat can attest to the consciousness-intensifying effect of the life-or-death experience. But we are looking for something more sustainable and less risky. Sky-diving, hang gliding, scuba diving, whitewater kayaking, etc. are less risky than combat, but provide a temporary aura of intensity which lingers after the experience. In occupational settings, life or death emergencies attended to by firefighters, police officers, EMS personnel, medical personnel in hospitals, etc. provide temporary "fixes" of intensity. And under the category of "not to be recommended," the commission of a crime and the attendant risk of being caught supplies the outlaw with a feeling of intensity which can become addictive to some. Similarly, committing acts which may be legal but which are socially or occupationally frowned upon, can sometimes provide a touch of that "outlaw intensity," that accompanies risk.

Perhaps the most dangerous method of intensifying experience is to fall in love. The fallout from such a turn is apt to be fatal to any number of persons involved and in the immediate vicinity. ;-)

As for using brain science to overclock the brain, I will be exploring some of the ideas that might be tried eventually in short works of fiction on another Al Fin blog.



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