Psychology in the future: The science fiction of therapy…

As you probably know, I’m a psychologist. I’ve spent a lot of time studying psychology (including 11 years of tertiary training), and I keep up to date on as much of the leading-edge in my area as I can, as well as in other related areas, such as neuroscience. The problem is, I don’t actually know much. And I don’t know much because we don’t know much about how us humans work.

Don’t get me wrong, psychology (along with medicine) is finally getting somewhere with the human condition. But this is a pretty recent thing – up until the recent past (say the last 15 years), a lot of what we did was well-intentioned voodoo (and leeching for the medics); and, to be honest, a lot of it still is. But we’re getting somewhere largely because of computers. Before the computer age, humans had to imagine the human condition based on what they understood. At that point, they understood (or thought they did) basic biological processes and machinery. We’d also spent a lot of time thinking about religion and the notion of a soul. So for a long time, we thought of the body as a series of connected biological machines, inhabited by some sort of ‘life-giving spark’ (soul, spirit, mind, whatever…). The advent of computers allowed us to do two things. The first was conceptual. We were able to look at ourselves and see parallels with computers, both the hardware platform, and the operating system and programs that run on that hardware. The second was practical. Increasing computing sophistication and processing power has allowed all branches of science to go ever so much further. Thanks to computers, we’re now able to look at the brain and nervous system in real-time (albeit, for now, with limited resolution), simulate the actions of neurons, and measure brain activity with increasing fidelity. In the near future, we’ll be able to simulate entire cortical stacks (interconnected neuron beds that combine to make up parts of the brain) and, probably within the next 20 years, an entire human brain.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the current state of psychology. So far, we have a limited understanding of the brain and nervous system. We’ve mapped locations in the brain that appear to control specific functions, such as speech, or motor control, or sensory input, or fear. This mapping was originally performed by observing the behaviour of people who had suffered brain lesions (and then dissecting their brains) but, more recently, thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we can look at brain activity in real-time and, using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), we can shut down parts of the brain temporarily and observe the effects. There are two problems with this approach. First, although we can observe which parts of the brain are activated under what context, we still can’t observe what’s going on a deeper level. This is analogous to observing a computer in action by opening the case; we can tell that the hard-drive is active, and even that it’s used for storage (by, for instance, observing the effects when we remove it), but we can’t tell what’s being stored or how. Likewise, we can take it apart and look at it’s basic subunits, but in isolation, we can’t tell much about what they do or how. So, our understanding of the brain’s workings is limited to macro and micro observations, but without being able to see the whole in action (from the bottom to the top and vice versa). The second problem is the software. If we measure the flow of electricity in a computer we can see that a part activates itself under certain conditions (this is what we do with fMRI), and we can make inferences about the action of the software, but we can’t tell what software is running, or even what it’s doing. Our brains also run types of software (but we know virtually nothing about it) – the most obvious example of any software on a brain’s hardware platform is you.

Yes, you are a software construct running on the hardware (wetware, mushware?) in your head. That construct was developed based on years of programming (aka your experiences), as well as your genetic makeup (the computer’s design). Of course, it’s a bit more complex than that. It’s also an evolved system, with hardware structures and software modules devoted largely to running systems automatically, as well as (a large number) to promote our survival (note that many of these modules are outmoded; they evolved for an environment that no longer exists, but aren’t easily able to adapt to our new, more complex one). And all we can really do is make useful guesses about it. That’s what I do as a psychologist – I attempt to understand some of the ways in which your software might have become faulty (usually based on information about unexpected environmental influences), and intervene with a software patch (delivered via language). Unfortunately  I’m hamstrung by three real problems. The first is our lack of understanding of the system. We have some great theories, but not a lot of evidence, to support them, and a very limited understanding of the way the whole system works. The second problem is the interface. I have to use language, both to interpret the problem, and then to attempt to fix it. Language is slow (very low bandwidth), horribly imprecise, and highly subjective. Worse, my clients often don’t have access to the hardware and software issues, or aren’t able to articulate those issues, so they can’t communicate the problem (requiring that I infer the problem based on my inexact understanding of the system). Last, is the system itself. As you’ve come across before if you read my blogs, the thing we call “me” is really an illusion created to help integrate a series of independent software and hardware modules (see here). People get convinced that there’s something wrong, or even create the disturbance themselves, without knowing why; we’re often our own worst enemies when it comes to psychological health and stability!

OK, so that’s the current state of psychology. A reasonably solid theoretical basis, and a best-guess attempt at low-bandwidth software patching, without the tools to gauge success objectively, or to see and refine that effect. But what if we had both a more complete understanding of the system, accurate simulators, tools to enhance and measure the effects and, most interestingly, ways to influence the system without having to rely on the limitations of language?

Track forward 10-15 years. Remote sensing is ubiquitous. We’re able to monitor our bodies, internally and externally, and record the data. We can measure our brainwaves (as well as our skin temperature and conductivity, our heart rate and our blood pressure) with high levels of accuracy by wearing a piece of jewellery and, over time, can use the resulting data to determine the things that trigger unpleasant events (like frustration) and our reactions that lead to distress (such as losing it traffic). Using this data, computers will be able to predict when we’re about to have an arousal event, and interrupt us before it happens. They’ll even learn the most effective ways to interrupt us in order to reduce the likelihood of the issue occurring. Over time, we’ll be able to use this information to train ourselves to be aware of midbrain activation (see here), and to redirect our attention toward something more effective. In this world, psychologists will still be operating in much the same way they do now, but with access to cheap, effective bio and neurofeedback systems to help clients learn about how they operate in the world, pay greater attention to what’s going on, and to choose alternative (effective and values-congruent) actions. Amazingly we can already do this (and this is what I do with my clients, sans technology) – it’s called mindfulness, but it takes a lot of effort for most people to get this, and most never do. Instead many of us spend our lives a victim to the primitive, redundant parts of our brains, responding ineffectively to the modern world because of outmoded neural responses.

Track forward 20-30 years. Computer processing is insanely fast, we can measure pretty much everything at astounding resolution, and we’ve been able to simulate an entire human brain. We’ve even been able to teach that system, so that it learns like a human and develops a connectome. Even more impressive, we can map our own connectome, and learn to influence it. Using genome-specific, nano-delivered pharmaceuticals, we can change the neurochemical structure of the brain, and using TMS with neuron-specific accuracy, we can modify the electrical pathways, whilst monitoring the effects in real-time. We’ll be able to bypass language as the interface to the brain, and make changes to the software by tweaking the hardware. You can expect a lot of fuck ups during this time – we’ll also realise that it’s not so easy to modify software by tinkering with the hardware (try writing code by fiddling with the capacitors on your computer’s central processor), but we’ll probably combine this approach with increasingly sophisticated neurofeedback, so we can be complicit in choosing our behavioural changes and manipulating our own software/hardware. At this stage, psychologists will be largely unrecognisable (due to our elaborate moustaches). Traditional talk-therapy will probably be long gone, with a mix of system engineering, and data analysis in its place.

Track forward 50 years and we’ve got the Matrix (or at least the brain-computer interface from it). By this stage, we’ll have a direct computer-brain interface (“I know Kung Fu”), and a lot of our software will run on non-neural hardware. This is truly the realm of science fiction (as we imagine it now). We’ll no longer be stuck in our own heads, with a crappy interface (language for communication, biological senses for input). Instead, we’ll be able to literally share another’s consciousness, communicate through thoughts, access limitless information directly and instantaneously, and experience the world though any number of sensory augmentations. At this point, psychologists will probably be be artificial intelligences that help us manage the complex systems wired into our skulls. If I’m alive, I certainly won’t have a career! I thoroughly recommend a couple of really clever sci-fi authors to help you get your head around this: Charles Stross (in particular his book “Accelerando“), and Ramez Naam (try his book “Nexus“).

Of course, these future scenarios come with a seriously large warning sticker. At their least, they encourage reliance on technology for personal wellbeing. Some of us already do this. Currently, it takes effort to learn to overcome your psychoevolutionary programming. In many ways this is a good thing – it means that, once mastered, you are largely in control. Alas, reliance on a piece of technology brings the potential for technological failure (inevitable) and the consequent problems. Tracking forward you can guarantee that delivered pharmaceuticals and other brain modification technology will be abused (as seriously addictive drugs, forms of torture, or “mind control”). Even further forward, the brain-computer interface has terrifying potential. Imagine losing yourself because of a computer virus, or having your desires modified ‘for your own good’ by your government, or having your root access hacked by someone else. Let’s just hope the technology comes with some good privacy controls.

Welcome to the future…

One Reply to “Psychology in the future: The science fiction of therapy…”

  1. Wow Jeremy, what a future! I think that I’d rather practise “mindfulness” and remain in the present!!

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