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A neuroscientist confronts the history and future of our quest to understand electricity’s role in brain function

Electric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads Minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the Better

R. Douglas Fields
BenBella Books
2020
480 pp.
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Imagine that you are living in Rome in the year 44 CE and that you are suffering from an appalling migraine and have gone to see a doctor. The doctor approaches you, hoisting a shining torpedo fish toward your pounding skull. The goal? The fish will shock you until your head feels numb and your migraine abates. Luckily for modern migraine sufferers, such practices are far behind us, but contemporary physicians and researchers are still working to understand the myriad ways electricity comes into play in the brain. In his new book, Electric Brain, neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields delves into the complicated relationships between neurobiology, electricity, capability, and impairment.

Our brains, each of which thrums with enough electrical energy to power a low-wattage light bulb, can now be measured and explored much better than ever before—a boon for doctors seeking better medical treatments and a thrill for inventors crossing neuroscience thresholds, but a warning, too, as our personalities and thoughts become less private and potentially more exploitable. Electric Brain details scientists’ quest to understand brain waves throughout history, covering a good deal of unsettling material in the process and touching on today’s emerging technology and most pressing ethical questions.

Where, Fields inquires, are the boundaries of electricity’s effects in the brain? To what extent can precisely directed electrical impulses measure our minds and change our behaviors? Specific kinds of brain stimulation, he explains, can make your muscles move involuntarily, induce sexual arousal, or prompt attacks of rage. Modern scientists can now also interpret the brain’s electrical activity with much greater accuracy, classifying patterns associated with certain images and letters, for example. With training and the right interface, a paralyzed person can operate a motorized wheelchair, a competitor can race a toy car, and a writer can type out a paragraph using just the electricity that underlies thought.

Fields adopts a “writer as adventurer” approach to the book’s narrative. To gain insight into how mountaineers risk brain swelling at high altitudes, he subjects himself to a magnetic resonance imaging scan after climbing Mount Rainier. To learn about emerging ways to heal brain damage and boost productivity, he struggles through multiple sessions of neurofeedback.

Fields returns repeatedly to a tension inherent in brain wave studies, comparing scientific research conducted in good faith with research that veers more into ethically questionable or methodologically compromised territory. Here, he highlights the work of Hans Berger, a tight-lipped German physician working in the early 1900s who conducted invasive experiments on patients for nontherapeutic purposes. Although his methods were blunt and exploratory, he was among the first to record human brain waves.

Even today, it can be difficult to separate legitimate brain science from studies that may prove cringe-worthy in the future. Comparatively crude brain wave–measuring tools, misleading hypotheses, and our own ignorance have dogged the field since the beginning and continue to challenge modern researchers.

Fields ranges widely, pointing out how modern brain wave research is entangled with contemporary geopolitical concerns. War, he argues, both accelerates and interrupts certain kinds of research, while cultural concerns can determine which avenues of research are pursued and which lie dormant. He relates the story of neuroscientist José Delgado, a medical corpsman and concentration camp survivor during the Spanish Civil War, who believed that electrodes implanted in the brain could “psychocivilize” humans. However, the vividness of Delgado’s experimental work—he once used an electrical implant to halt a charging bull on command, for example—elicited concerns about mind control and dampened research on electrical stimulation, research that has only recently been revived.

As our scientific capabilities expand, so do related ethical concerns, Fields reminds readers. Some of the book’s most sobering passages deal with possible future advances, including the ability to “hack” the brain, the weaponization of brain control, and the capacity for brain imaging to be used to identify troubling character traits or aspects of performance.

We may soon inhabit a world in which our thoughts are not entirely private. As we proceed, we must be sure to temper our excitement for these emerging technologies with wisdom and respect.

About the author

The reviewer is a freelance science writer based in Seattle, WA, USA.