Every year renowned literary agent John Brockman asks a group of prominent scientists a question and posts their answers at his web-site The Edge. This years question is “what is your dangerous idea”. In his reply, French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene raises the question of neuro-enhancement. As was the case with the Nation article mentioned below, neuro-enhancement is most often viewed as a dubious affair – potentially dangerous and socially unfair. Dehaene, in contrast, is very much in favour of it. We tend to overlook, he writes, just how inherently limited our brain is. If possible, we should do something about this limitation. An excerpt from his reply:
As we gain knowledge of brain plasticity, a major application of cognitive neuroscience research should be the improvement of life-long education, with the goal of optimizing this transformation of our brains. Consider reading. We now understand much better how this cultural capacity is laid down. A posterior brain network, initially evolved to recognize objects and faces, gets partially recycled for the shapes of letters and words, and learns to connect these shapes to other temporal areas for sounds and words. Cultural evolution has modified the shapes of letters so that they are easily learnable by this brain network. But, the system remains amazingly imperfect. Reading still has to go through the lopsided design of the retina, where the blood vessels are put in front of the photoreceptors, and where only a small region of the fovea has enough resolution to recognize small print. Furthermore, both the design of writing systems and the way in which they are taught are perfectible. In the end, after years of training, we can only read at an appalling speed of perhaps 10 words per second, a baud rate surpassed by any present-day modem.
Nevertheless, this cultural invention has radically changed our cognitive abilities, doubling our verbal working memory for instance. Who knows what other cultural inventions might lie ahead of us, and might allow us to further push the limits of our brain biology?