Over six sessions, volunteers are being asked to try to increase and decrease their pain while watching the activation of a part of their brain involved in pain perception and modulation. This real-time imaging lets them assess how well they are succeeding. Dr. Sean Mackey, the study's senior investigator and the director of the Neuroimaging and Pain Lab at Stanford, explained that the results of the study's first phase, which were recently published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that while looking at the brain, subjects can learn to control its activation in a way that regulates their pain. While this may be likened to biofeedback, traditional biofeedback provides indirect measures of brain activity through information about heart rate, skin temperature and other autonomic functions, or even EEG waves. Mackey's approach allows subjects to interact with the brain itself.
"It is the mind-body problem — right there on the screen," one of Mackey's collaborators, Christopher deCharms, a neurophysiologist and a principal investigator of the study, told me later. "We are doing something that people have wanted to do for thousands of years. Descartes said, 'I think, therefore I am.' Now we're watching that process as it unfolds."
Suddenly, the machine made a deep rattling sound, and an image flickered before me: my brain. I am looking at my own brain, as it thinks my own thoughts, including these thoughts.
Absolutely amazing. The invocation of Descartes is right on. I'm in the midst of writing a paper on Descartes and Spinoza and the passions. In Passions of the Soul, Descartes points out that our will does not allow us direct control over our body. So, for instance, I can't will to dilate my pupil, but I can will to focus on something far away, which then leads to that effect.
This is an attempt to cut out the middle man... sorta. It's basically the ultimate tool for learning techniques of self-control. As the article points out, something that take Buddhist monks 30 years to accomplish can now be jump-started, with possible lasting effect. So people with chronic pain, for instance, can learn to control their pain, by seeing what actually works!
This should provide a tremendous opportunity to increase reason's power in redirecting affect. It's truly astonishing the power we are gaining of recreating ourselves. We can alter our brain's chemistry, either through the use of pharmaceuticals, or through technologies like these. Someday, we may be able to rewrite the human genome, and edit out the nastiest parts of it. The opportunity to increase human happiness to unheard-of levels is one that we must not let pass us by.
If playing God is wrong, then I don't want to be right. I'd love to try this neuroimaging therapy myself. Just imagine looking at your brain in real time. What must be going on in there as the brain "looks" at itself? We still don't know nearly enough to answer that question.
But the possibilities are endless! It's enough to give one hope in a world that looks bleaker each day.