Ask Hackaday: What are Your Less Extreme Brain Hacks?

Kahn — perhaps Star Trek’s best-hated villain — said: “Improve a mechanical device and you may double productivity, but improve man and you gain a thousandfold.” In fact, a lot of hacking effort goes into doing just that. Your phone has become an extension of your memory, for example. We use glasses, cameras, and hearing aids to shore up failing senses or even give us better senses than normal. But hacking your body — or someone else’s — has always been controversial. While putting an RFID chip in your finger is one thing, would you consider having a part of your brain removed? That sounds crazy, but apparently, there is a growing interest in having your amygdala removed.

To be clear: we think this is a terrible idea. The science is shaky, at best, and we certainly wouldn’t want to be among the first to try something so radical. But why is anyone even talking about it?

The amygdala is part of your brain that causes at least some of your fear and anxiety. Get rid of your amygdala, get rid of anxiety? What’s even stranger is this the procedure — an amygdalectomy — has been going on since the 1960s! Injections of oil and wax destroy the tissue and this treatment is used for some forms of epilepsy and to manage certain aggressive behavior problems in mentally ill patients. In modern times, the procedure is not very common although it appears that it does still occur in some places. But the technology to do it does exist. There have also been documented cases where people lose their amygdala from natural causes that gives us some clues of what life would be like without one.

However, it is hard to say if these people lost fear. Most of the surgical patients were already suffering from a variety of problems. There is some evidence that the naturally occurring amygdalaless patients experienced less fear in some situations, but may experience more fear in others. They also may have other problems such as difficulty understanding social cues or making eye contact. We’re not 100% sure what the amygdala does, even disregarding potential side effects.

Here’s what we do know. There’s actually a pair of amygdalae in your wetware, and they each appear to have slightly different functions. The organ tends to be larger based on testosterone levels: mens’ are statistically larger. There is a belief that the organ helps with storage of certain long-term memories, contributes to people being binge drinkers, and is implicated in having a sense of personal space. If you want to know more, you might enjoy the video below.

Here at Hackaday, we are most definitely not doctors nor do we play them on TV. So we don’t know if this would work or have bad side effects. We’ll admit the idea of having oil and wax injected in your head to kill off a part of your brain, or even just part of your limbic system, doesn’t sound like a great idea to us.

We are going to assume everyone will agree this is a bit too far out. Our questions: How far are you willing to go to hack your own brain? What’s your favorite brain hack that you do? Do you take fish oil? Work puzzles? Experiment with psychotropics? How far would you go if you thought something was safe and beneficial?

Extreme hacks like brain surgery would be both a medical decision and an ethics problem. Maybe it is easier to think in terms of something easier to deal with than your brain. If there was a prosthetic limb that gave you an improvement over your natural limb, would you have a replacement done even if you didn’t need it? After all, we are starting to see prosthetics that can outperform human factory equipment. We have eye surgery to avoid wearing glasses. If you could prove that removing part of your brain would make things better, how is that different?

Then again, if you had no fear, is that even a good thing? It appears that even without this part of your limbic system you would still experience some kinds of fear. But your body being afraid of poisonous creatures and heights is really a survival mechanism. Do you really want to shut that off? Reports are that the most famous patient who has no amygdala has been the victim of numerous crimes, which is likely related to her inability to feel fear.

This may seem farfetched, but as biotechnology grows, we are going to see more and more of this sort of thing. We’ve seen body modifications aplenty. CRISPR is allowing people to alter their own bodies at the genetic level. Could this all be the next frontier for hacking? Tell us what you think.

Photo Credits: Brain by Meo (via Pexels); Snake by Worldspectrum (via Pexels)

51 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: What are Your Less Extreme Brain Hacks?

  1. “Tell us what you think.”

    Transhumanistic developments that make for better writers and editors.

    Games and literature try to explore all this but really doing will be the only way to determine what’s possible, impossible, good idea, or bad.

    1. I use nootropics regularly, the latest one that I started adding to my normal stack is Lion’s Maine Mushroom Powder. Was surprised how well it works being an all natural nootropic, great energy, focus and mental clarity plus it’s been shown increase neurogenesis and preventing, possibly reversing, Alzheimer and CTE effects. I have used a TDCS and liked it;s effects. I would like to get one but it’s not an easy or fast process, its took time, resources, multiple pieces of hardware and effort just to get it ready to use. Plus they aren’t cheap and this is one item that I don’t want the cheap knock off version when applying current to your head. That is the reason I am hesitant about building one, even though I’m 99% sure I could without issue. I guess if screwed up I couldn’t complain about it afterwards or any come up any thought for that matter.

    2. Nootropics, ie minimally regulated but certified dose and composition research pharmaceuticals, I use them.
      I do exercise(swim, weights, bike) and keto to attempt to bring down my body inflammation distractions; my IBS, gout, stomach ulcers, fatty liver, sugar crashes, and hemorrhoids dealt with 100% as long as I stay in ketosis, a sudden world of pain if I skip out. Green leafies and limited primitive fruits as well as iodine and electrolyte supplementation for vitamins and minerals. I try to avoid Adderall but sometimes use Modafinil and phenylpiracetam(or other racetams/noopept for slower days) for concentration especially with a sleep debt, phenibut with 2l of water for occasional severe anxiety; SSRIs make me feel like a tweaker so cant do them. melatonin if I need to get to sleep without an ambien hangover, I try not to use ambien ever and it’s use means I take a sick day.
      Really the racetams are my go to for clearer head, but I wish I had access to low dose, not micro as some prefer, of LSD but I haven had since the missile silo got raided in the 90s. LSD is amazing for eliminating any anxiety if low dose sub hallucinogenic dosed every few months but it gets difficult for an old guy with a straight haircut to find ‘hard’ drugs like LSD.
      I really don’t drink except a glass of wine both friday night and saturday brunch, I was a firefighter paramedic in a small community so I was almost never not on standby, am a pilot(etOH .04 8hrs bottle(and pill) to throttle with FAA exceptions) now but still like the feeling of always ready to go even if my health has never recovered from what is probably some sort of genetic autoimmune disorder without an easy diagnosis, but the above helps.
      Health, especially avoiding sources of inflammation, choosing a compatible friend as a partner, being part of a society, nutritious simple regulated diet which doesn’t leave you hungry, sufficient sexual and emotional release, a hobby/job you like to spend time doing, sufficient wealth to meet your goals and expenses as well as easily swat away problems and emergencies; the secrets to a a clear head and best brain hacks of all.

  2. If we’ve noticed any patterns while dissecting and analyzing our own bodies, it’s that everything serves multiple functions. When a machine is designed by humans, it’s convenient to separate everything into a neat, branching hierarchy of systems that each focus on one specific job. But in an evolved organism formed via unguided random circumstance and natural selection, everything does whatever it can for the whole system. Waste not, want not. All of our neurotransmitter chemicals do a bunch of different things, despite pop-science articles that tell you that serotonin or dopamine or endorphins make you happy and oxytocin makes you fall in love. Those chemicals do a whole slew of different things, and just boosting or eliminating them will wreck havoc on several aspects of the organism. It’s way more subtle than that. Hence it’s such a difficult and personal procedure to dial in just the right psychiatric medication for any given individual.

    Chopping out a major piece of your brain is going to do a hell of a lot more than fix an anxiety disorder. But if these people are really sure, it would definitely help the rest of us learn what else that part does.

    1. It still stands that the most useful step in human augmentation would be the creation of a human-compatable (to borrow a term from computer marketing); an organism that is for all intents and purposes human, but can be augmented and adapted because it was designed like a machine.

    1. As I was saying….. (damnit hackaday get a better comment system :( )….

      Are things I’ve already undertaken. I’d be happy to undertake physical things shown to be safe and with predictable results. I often wonder what a olympic games which allowed both body modification and medical enhancements would bring us.

      I expect war will bring us those advancements first however.

  3. This one remains with me from the student years that I still use to this day when deadlines are nearing. A food supplement capsules with rose root(Rhodiola rosea) 1h before sleep when you don’t have enough time for proper sleep. (was supposed to be anti stress but I found out I sleep faster with it)

  4. When I was in High School, a late night television program (The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder?)
    one night had an episode about targeted neuro surgery. Instead of giving seriously depressed or violent individuals lobotomies, or heavy medication, a much smaller “target” in the brain was selected for destruction. This destruction forced the individual to use different neuro pathways than the one’s they frequently used (that resulted in their depression or other problems).
    One subject, who previously had been withdrawn and depressed, was now living happier and more outgoing.
    The episode was, as I recall it, positive about this research going further, but was aware of the social dislike for lobotomies.

    I discussed it with my Religion teacher the next day, and he pointed out that while it was “difficult” and “rare” at that time,
    what would stop a dictator, or such person, from applying it to a whole class of people if/when it became much easier to do?

    1. I would ask your religion teacher, how does denying a real life suffering person relief prevent a hypothetical dictator from doing nasty things to a hypothetical class of people? And what is so special about brain surgery?

      A doctor might cut off a person’s limb because it is infected and that is the only way to save the person. Maybe they might even do it for non life-threatening issues such as if there is extensive nerve damage causing constant pain. A dictator could cut off the right legs of potential a whole class of people in order to prevent them from rising up. How does the good doctor’s actions lead to the dictator’s? What is the connection?

      There is no connection. The dictator argument is a strawman that is often abused by the religious when fighting progress.

      1. Religion has been used by Kings and dictators for millennia to control their populations. It makes sense that a religious teacher would jump to that use of technology right away.

      2. Then again, there’s that letter that Einstein always regretted writing.

        You can’t uninvent something, and it’s only when smart people create something, or even let it be known as a possibility, that the psychopaths in power start to tent their fingers.

        Sure, you can make a slippery slope case against anything. But it’s sensible to consider risks against rewards.

  5. “Extreme hacks like brain surgery would be both a medical decision and an ethics problem.”

    Why?

    I can see how an “extreme hack” on a person, if you don’t know for sure what the outcome will be could* be an ethics problem. I can see that doing something like that to one’s children who aren’t old enough to consent themselves may** be a problem. But, if we did have the knowledge to do something that would improve one’s brain function with reasonable certainty and if a consenting adult wanted to do it then I don’t see how there is any ethical question at all.

    I think too many people look at human existence like it’s some sort of competitive game and improving one’s body or brain beyond it’s natural capabilities is some sort of unfair cheat. I completely disagree. We only live once (that we know) and should be making the absolute most of it that we can. If some day we have this kind of ability, and I think we will then I think society’s bias against modification will only hold people back for no real gain. It will rob people of what they could have done and who they could have been. That is tragic.

    I hope we can collectively get over this idea before we have the medical knowledge and technology such that it matters. I am not hopeful though.

    * – I will only grant that this is an ethical question, not a slam-dunk bad thing. One might argue that a consenting adult should be able to choose to try something more experimental. Everything is somewhat experimental until many people have tried it after all. Protocols need to be in place to prevent things from being tried on people when there is still more non-invasive research that could be done. This should be balanced so as to not unduly inhibit progress when human trials are all that are really left to do.

    **-It may be that there are improvements that can only be made on a still developing brain. If those improvements are safe, and have a clear benefit… there could still be an argument made for it. What kind of parent does not want what is best for their children.

    — All that said, I will not be signing up to get my amygdala removed today!

    Also, is Kahn really Star Trek’s “best-hated villain”? Really? Sure, they say he committed atrocities long before the time frame of the show. (Or do they even say he specifically or just others like him?) Then he does what, tries to take over the ship? How long is the list of villains who did that?!? Then, after the planet his people are destroyed by an unfortunate act of nature he gets irrationally bent on revenge.

    Sure, that’s villain but I don’t think it qualifies as “best-hated”. I’d almost have more disdain for the leaders in the Federation that chose to outright ban genetic augmentation than I would for Kahn.

  6. Less extreme brain hacks: A little exercise and fresh fruit in the morning instead of three cups of coffee. A 20 minute nap in the afternoon boost productivity for the rest of the day. Also, B vitamin complex to prevent hangovers.

    1. Sleep hacks.

      I tried to go polyphasic once (30 minutes every four hours) but didn’t last a week. It was very interesting though (random extreme mood upon waking, disconnection from social rhythm).

      I usually sleep for an hour some time after midday and don’t have coffee until after that. I can work until 1am instead of becoming a zombie at 8pm when I get my “nana nap”. I still sleep 7 or 8 hours at night as well, so not saving any time, just feel that all of my waking hours are at 100% throttle this way.

  7. When I hear of this I can only think about Rose Kenedy and her prefrontal lobotomy that was performed at the request of her father Joe in the hope that it would help her. That was done following the best medical practice at the time. What a tragedy.
    Until we understand more about the brain I would encourage anyone thinking about such a procedure to “forget about it.” Brain plasticity only goes so far, after that you just lose.

    1. She was sent to spend the rest of her days in a nursing home in Wisconsin (far from the rest of the family).
      My father-in-law speculated the surgery was done to “keep her quiet” about the Kennedy’s misdeeds.

    2. The history of the West Virginia Lobotomy Project at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is pretty scary too.

      Three words pretty much guaranteed to give me the chills:
      Ice pick lobotomy

      1. Even “regular” ECT therapy is a bit unnerving to watch.

        I have a young relative that recently received some kind of implant of electrodes into their brain to try and reduce the impact/severity of seizures.

  8. I’ve thought occasionally about the curious anomaly in einstein’s brain. he had a fused subparietal sulcus, i.e a single part where most brains have two. I think it could be possible to carry out mental exercises to fuse that region in normies. I wonder how that would change their perception. I haven’t read any articles about anyone with a similar arrangement. It could change the expression of neurological diseases like ocd, schizophrenia, which tend to stay confined to one hemisphere.

    1. People love to conclude that great scientists must have had something magical about their brains, but people frequently succeed just by being smart, curious, hardworking, and in the right place at the right time.

      1. I didn’t know that footage, thank you.

        The video description and is about President Kennedy, and the link in the video description seems unrelated with the video. I don’t understand Russian, where can I get more details about the dog head video, please?

  9. Might be worth noting the Star Trek episode with Kahn aired just 22 months after Gordon Moore published is “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits” paper, which much later became commonly called “Moore’s Law”.

    Since then we’ve see machines become 1000 times more capable. Humans, not so much.

    1. That is a tenuous statement. There are more geniuses in the world today than there ever has been. Think of the billions of man hours that has gone into research from machining, chemistry, nanotech, semiconductors, engineering, etc. Our collective intelligence grows more massive by the day.

  10. It’s lame compared to brain surgery, but:

    I work as a software engineer who needs to be self motivated and creative in addition to productive (should familiar?). I work in C++, Python and Linux. I start the day with a chapter or party of a chapter from a book by an expert on software or looking best practices. I started with Scott Meyers’ Effective C++. It helps to get my head in the game each morning, it takes less than 20 minutes and I more than makes up for it by hitting the ground running. Plus, I’m slowly learning all sorts of things.

    If you want to start, go to one of the best engineers in your office and ask to borrow a useful book. I’m guessing they have plenty to share. FWIW, I think there’s a big difference between reading a chapter in a book and an article on the internet. Mostly because the book is more thoroughly organized and each chapter doesn’t have to be eye catching. Sorry HAD :).

  11. The human brain is a very flexible and highly versatile device. It mostly benefits from training which may even create new synaptic connections. Tampering with its physical structure means neglecting several hundret million years of evolutional experience. The stakes are no less than your personal identity.

    I’d rather invest into change of input. Try something new from time to time. Learn something you never tried before. Get enough sleep and treat your body well. Do not trust creationists, religious extremists, tech evangelists or “scientologists”. It’s all there for free, just train it.

  12. Wow. As a neuroscientist, I can’t imagine removing any part of a brain unless as an extreme rescue surgery, like removing an infection. After all, the plasticity is always going on, even in many disease states. I’m 62 and my brain is still developing, for instance. As many gave pointed out here nothing in our bodies does “just one thing,” or is simple.
    Operant techniques can help us “re-invent” ourselves
    As a student, I used to have a meal with spinach, then chew AsperGum on the way to a big evening Chemistry test. It seemed to help, but it’s something I was good at anyway!

  13. I am not a licensed doctor, so this is for entertainment purposes only… even if accurate. I like a good hybrid indica or indica personally to cool down, espresso double shot in the morning to warm up if not exercise like push-ups, leg raises, dips and squats. though haven’t for years now since the prosecutor and his court are war criminals that aren’t getting prosecuted that targeted me with his/their continuing criminal enterprise minions.

    As much extra virgin olive oil I can handle a day was a protocol that I can’t afford so much since moving to more organic inputs. Higher sodium chloride to stimulate, high potassium chloride to depress. The mixed 50/50 typically in general watching the ingredients label for no adulterants like aluminum in particular. Keeping the intake of carbos down as low as I can deal with. Mild or Moderate Ketogenic preferably.

    There are also B vitaimins that have benefits too if you read into as well as thinking from a genomic, transcriptomic, proteinomic, metabolomic (aminome/peptideome, lipidome/fatty acidome, carbohydratome, vitaminome and mineralome), epigenomic perspective. I pioneered that later terminology and the study isn’t getting much for support…. seriously under self funded. As bad as, anything other than tCDS, anything wireless using sound and EMF taken seriously.

    Basically, think like from an input, process and output to you bodies internal system. Also factoring in your environment and boundaries. Do you want to stimulate and organ system? Do you want to depress and organ system? Do you want to dissociate and organ system? Then depending on the scale of implement used… what Quantitative Structural Activity Relationship (QSAR) and similar data is available down to the receptor level for tissues, cell clusters and molecular mechanisms.

    I’m thinking in the future there is potential for genetic insertions and deletions to optimize as well as bio-equivalent more complex proteins and mixtures that optimize health,. Unfortunately, bio-equivalent medicine is shunned and targeted by Pan Troglodyte that maliciously destroys personality, property, mass murders and wants to make people believe they are telling the truth including using torture and forensically clean murder to most to intimidate while trying to look smart, rich and official.

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