In the beginning of my article on Neural Engineering, I talked about various engineering approaches. This last section is all about the approach called “exploiting the properties of neural systems” as I mentioned earlier.
A Computer Hacker seeks and exploits weaknesses to break into a computer system or computer network. Similarly, Brain Hackers can use the sense of smell to dive into our minds and modify our behaviors!
This is based on a finding by Ilana Hairston, a psychologist at The Academic College of Tel-Aviv Yaffo in Israel who studies how the brain works when a person sleeps.
Ilana Hairston is a psychologist at The Academic College of Tel-Aviv Yaffo in Israel. She studies how the brain works when a person is sleeping. An experiment that Ilana conducted showed that a person’s view of one another can be changed by an “outside force.”
How it works:
Computer programmers hack into secure systems using “cracks,” a way of getting around the security to private information. It turns out that human beings have “cracks” too. When we sleep, the brain blocks out all the information of sight, touch, hearing, and taste. Smell is the “crack” to the brain. The information from the sense of smell is passed to the unconscious when we sleep. In Ilana’s experiment, the volunteer puts on sensors that record the brain activity and how the person breathes. Then, Ilana trains the volunteer to associate certain sounds, like a man’s voice, to a certain smell, like rotten eggs, while the volunteer is asleep. Ilana noticed that the volunteer’s breathing pattern becomes sharp and shallow indicating that the smell was bad. When the volunteer wakes up, Ilana played the same recording of the man’s voice. The volunteer unconsciously started to take sharp, shallow breaths.
It is time to vote for a new president of the United States. A person fell asleep and didn’t turn off the television when a candidate is giving a speech. A mind hacker breaks into the house and puts a smelly sock under the sleeping person’s nose. The next time the person sees the candidate, he or she relates the candidate to the smell of the smelly sock. And unconsciously, the person dislikes the candidate but doesn’t know why.
Here is an extract from the script of the brilliant episode:”Can Our Minds Be Hacked?” of “Through The Wormhole with Morgan Freeman” on The Discovery Science Channel:
Freeman: Could your sense of smell be a crack for a brain hacker? Ilana Hairston is a research psychologist in Tel Aviv, Israel.Ilana is fascinated by what happens in our brains when we sleep.
It began with an experiment she did in her student days.
Hairston: At the time, I was working with animals, and I could see that I would train animals on a maze and they would not learn.
“Clearly, ” I thought, “These animals are very stupid, ” and then I’d go back, put them in the cage, come back the next day, and boom, they performed like they’d been practicing the whole night, and it just blew my mind.
It made me realize we spend a third of our life asleep, and there’s so much going on while we sleep.
Freeman: Ilana thinks that our minds must be able to learn when we lose consciousness.
To prove it, she’s plotting to break into the sleeping mind.
It’s a job that requires her to first get past the brain’s night watchman, the thalamus.
Hairston: There’s a part of the brain called the thalamus.
What it typically does, it’s gonna clamp down on sensory information and stop you from waking up, or if it says, “Okay, this is important information.
You need to wake up, ” It’ll cause you to wake up.
Freeman: But Ilana believes there is a back door into the brain when we sleep Our sense of smell.
Smell goes first to the cortex And so it kind of bypasses this relay station.
Basically, you can enter the sleeping brain without going through this relay station.
Freeman: When we fall asleep, the thalamus acts like a watchful nanny.
Our senses try to deliver information to the brain but are turned away.
Input from our sense of smell, however, has direct access, and once inside, sensory signals that are normally tuned out during our sleep can be snuck in.
Ilana teamed up with research partners at the weizmann institute to hack into the minds of sleeping test subjects using odors.
They hook a test subject up to a machine that can produce a wide variety of sense and then measure how deeply the subject breathes.
The subject falls into a deep sleep, and Ilana and her colleague go to work.
They release a pleasant perfume and immediately play a high-pitched tone.
[ High-pitched tone plays ] Later, they release the smell of rotting fish And play a low-pitched tone.
[ Low-pitched tone plays ] The process repeats throughout the night until morning arrives.
Hairston: So, we just got our participant out of bed, and he’s not hearing or smelling anything, and we’re gonna present the tones alone without the smells to see if he responds to the tones.
So, now we’re just watching him breathing.
Freeman: The subject had no conscious awareness of the odors presented throughout the night and has no memory of them now, but Ilana wants to see if his breathing patterns reveal an unconscious, visceral reaction to the high and low tones.
She first plays the tone linked to the perfume.
[ High-pitched tone plays ] The inhale was much bigger and wider compared to his normal inhales.
We paired this tone with a pleasant odor.
Then she plays the low-pitched tone, the one that was paired with the foul stench.
[ Low-pitched tone plays ] Again, you can see the trigger of the tone, and he’s literally holding his breath.
The subject does not smell anything, but his mind reacts as though he does.
He associates the high-pitched tone with pleasant, breathable air and the low-pitched tone with foul, nauseating odors.
The key issue here is also that he doesn’t actually remember anything that happened during the night.
He’s not actually aware that this tone was associated with a bad smell or a good smell.
He’s just responding to the tone without any knowledge of what we expect him to do.
Ilana believes that this brain-hacking technique can be refined and used to manipulate any unconscious mind.
Hairston: And then the question is can we do this with a more subtle paradigm, like training people during sleep? And I think the answer would be “Yes.
” Freeman: Take, for example, politics.
Your support of one candidate might seem, to you, to be unswervable.
But while you are sleeping, scent hackers could train your mind to associate pleasant or foul odors with just about any sound, even the sound of a particular person’s voice.
The next time you hear that voice, your newly-learned subconscious reaction could turn adulation into disgust.
Hairston: Because odors are emotional, I think we could modify our emotional responses to stimuli, so I think you could modify emotional responses and thereby modify behavior.
But that’s only one of the many ways explored for a mind hack!
Freeman: Chris Berka is a neuroscientist, engineer, inventor, and CEO of a neurotech startup company.It’s a workload that would crush most of us, but she handles it by getting into a high-performance, high-output brain state.
It’s what athletes call “The zone.”
Berka: Being in the zone, it’s essentially just focused attention and the ability to not be distracted.
It’s what allows you to really develop perfection in any skill.
Freeman: Getting into the zone is a full-time obsession for Chris.
Her company is developing a device that she claims can train your brain to work like the brain of a highly-skilled expert.
Chris Oosterlinck is a California state archery champion.
Berka: He has a small band around his head that has four sensors for sensing the brain’s electrical activity.
We’re gonna be looking for the particular state leading up to the shot that we know is the peak performance state.
So, Chris, do you want to get ready and go? Freeman: Inside Chris’ brain, billions of neurons are firing, creating waves of electricity.
Different states of mind have different frequencies of waves.
When people are in the zone, two frequencies dominate Alpha waves, which indicate a state of meditative concentration, like those of a zen master, and lower-frequency theta waves, which show extreme relaxation.
Berka: The red line indicates the EEG Theta activity, and the green line indicates the Alpha activity, and we see both of those Alpha and theta increase just prior to taking the perfect shot.
Freeman: Chris brings in a group of amateurs.
She wants to see what will happen if she coaxes the amateurs to take their shots while in the same brain state as a professional archer.
Berka: So, what we’re doing is monitoring the brain’s electrical activity.
We do that by putting sensors on the scalp, and as you move through different cognitive states and mental states, the electronic frequencies of your brain will change, and we can record those in real time and analyze them.
Freeman: Each amateur focuses and relaxes to reach the zone.
Chris’ monitor records their brain waves, and a small haptic buzzer on their collar lets them know when they’ve achieved the same brain state as the professional.
We’re seeing the EEG Alpha increase and theta increase.
The haptic buzzer stopped, and now he’s ready to take the perfect shot.
Go ahead, Shane.
That was perfect.
[ Chuckles ] That was perfect.
That’s exactly the goal.
Freeman: By the end of only one day of practice, Chris’ technology hacked the minds of a group of amateurs to shoot at or close to a professional level of expertise.
Berka: And what we’re able to demonstrate is a 230% increase in the speed and accuracy of marksmanship training.
Freeman: Chris sees no end of potential customers for her brain-hacking device A corporate board that needs to make smart group decisions, a president who needs peak performance, or a special-forces operative whose split-second choices make the difference between life and death.
What we’re trying to do is to give you the ability to control your mind and your mental state, your ability to deal with even the most challenging environments, and just by training you to control your brain, you get this kind of metacognitive awareness that allows you to be much more resilient and adaptable to stressful situations.
To know in depth about this incredible subject, I would highly recommend you to watch the entire episode which includes the above two hacks and so much more. Everything has been explained so beautifully: