Hacking the Human Mind

“The intelligent want self-control, children want candy.”
– Rumi

Last week I gave a talk about the progress I’ve made on my meditation platform. In it, I went into a little more depth about the whys behind meditation, stressing how distracted we’ve become as a technological society, and how we’re going to need better tools to build and manage our focus as the world becomes more and more distracting.

The slides from the talk are above, and a link to the video is at the end of this post.

But I’ll also got into a little bit of an overview for those of you not willing to make the 20 minute video commitment.

The World Has Become Dangerously Distracting

* 12% of all boys between 3-17 years now diagnosed with ADHD
* 20% of smartphone users check phone every 10 minutes
* Multitasking has been shown to lower IQ by 10 points
* The average american teen now sends an average of 3,417 text messages per month.

In the past 40 years, we’ve gone from Pong to Battlefield 3. If you’re a 12 year old boy, you’ve now got to decide between homework and playing in live battlefield with up to 64 other players, using tanks and helicopters and sniper rifles and C4 and more. The rush and excitement of video games, versus the slow dull grind of homework.

Psychologists are now designing games for addictiveness. And they’re incorporating very powerful psychological tools to keep kids reeled in. From skinner boxes to variable ratio reinforcement to social pressure, kids are facing a very real and strong draw to the game realities over our shared physical realities.

It’s not the kid’s fault their heads are stuck in phones and games. They’ve both been designed to be incredibly addictive to our brains.

What’s the cost of this distractedness?

Willpower and Focus

Willpower has been shown to be a finite resource which is depleted by decision making.

Nearly every piece of our technological realities drains focus and willpower.

With the Loss of Willpower We’re Losing the Ability to Control and Direct Ourselves.

The Solution: Using Technology to Manage Our Minds More Effectively in the Face of New Threats

Brand New Research on Meditation

* Increases Attention Span
* Sharpens Focus
* Improves Memory
* Dulls the Perception of Pain
* Slows Age Related Thinning of the Prefrontal Cortex
* Helps Build Willpower

So why aren’t we all meditating?

Chicken or the Egg Problem: Don’t have enough willpower to start building our willpower.

If we were to make meditation seductive to our distracted minds, what would it look like?

Building the Platform to Measure Mediation

First prototype measured Galvanic Skin Response, Skin Temperature, and Heart Rate. Read physiology using off the shelf components, and an Arduino. Tracked all inputs using Clojure, and graphed all data using the incanter library.

It provided audio feedback (via Overtone) when a deeper meditative state was reached, and recorded all data so meditation could be tracked over time.

Initial Prototype Drawbacks:

* Must be attached to computer
* Wires get tangled
* Setting up computer is too distracting
* Not easy enough

Meditation on the iPhone

Using new Bluetooth LE heart rate monitors, we can now track heart rate with medical quality data. Combined with an app I’ve written using algorithms developed with the data from my first prototype, I now have a low-friction environment to measure meditation.

Unfortunately, Bluetooth LE is only supported by the iPhone 4S and 5, the New iPad, the iPad mini, and the new iPod Touch.

But we now have a portable psychology lab capable of providing audio and visual feedback to direct changes in our physiology caused by meditation.

Look for the meditation app in the App Store by the end of December

Fill out my online form.

Hacking Meditation with the Arduino

TLDR; Meditation done right changes your physiology. You can monitor these changes to your physiology using off the shelf components and the Arduino.

Learning to meditate sucks, because there’s no way to know whether you’re doing it right.

And if you are, have you sat long enough? Did your mind wander too much? You seem more relaxed, but did anything really change?

A growing number of studies show that meditation allows us to reduce pain and stress, to enhance sensory awareness, ability to focus, and most amazingly, build a sense of well being.

Simply put, science is proving practicing meditation allows us to change and fundamentally rewire the way our brain works for the better.

Up until now, meditation has been very woo woo, even as a growing body of scientific evidence shows the very real benefits.

So how do we take the woo woo out of meditation, and make improving our brains easier?

There have been some incredible breakthroughs in programming, focusing on giving users feedback immediately, coming from Brett Victor and Chris Granger. Their work got me thinking:

Can I build a device to give meditators feedback on changes to their physiology as they practice meditation?

And this lead me to start reading a bunch of medical publications from the past few years on meditation.

The common thread throughout all scientifically proven methods of meditation is that they fundamentally change your physiology.

This means we can measure physically, when changes happen within your meditation practice. So once we’ve established a normal for your heart rate, we can actually measure deviances from normal.

And from these deviances, we can tell as you go a level down in relaxation, or a level down in your stress, using your physiological giveaways.

If only I could build a way to get your physiological readings into the computer, I could provide audio feedback, and let a meditator know when they’d reached a deeper meditative state.

Building a Brain Laboratory at Home

I always wanted to learn how to code for the Arduino, and so this seemed like the perfect project. I ordered a beginners kit from Sparkfun, with the idea of initially building a Galvanic Skin Response reader.

This quickly evolved into building a more robust system, capable of distinguishing between more physiological changes.

So the prototype I’ve built reads three different values. Your Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), Skin Temperature, and Heart Rate.

Using these three values, I can tell as you become more relaxed (skin temperature, heart rate), and graph and watch as your meditation progresses.

So my initial prototype uses electrodes to measure your GSR and skin temperature, and an LED powered pulse sensor. My Arduino board sends the values straight to a Clojure program via USB.

The Clojure program reads data from the USB, and builds a running average of data. As soon as there is a deviance from a certain set percentage (depending on the input type), audio is triggered via an Overtone controller.

In this way, I can get immediate feedback as I enter a deeper meditative state, and my physiology changes.

Building a Platform to Hack the Mind

But I’m not stopping here. Our world is rapidly growing in complexity, and our ability to use more than the prefrontal cortex of our brain effectively is under attack.

Social media and a hundred million pieces of information only an arms length away mean we’ve got to build better ways to defend our minds from distraction, and learn better ways to manipulate and improve our mind’s functioning.

One problem that jumps out to me as a programmer is the 7+/- 2 issue.

We humans can only hold 7+/- 2 variables in our head at a time, without resorting to tricks. (Read Moonwalking With Einstein if you’re interested in the tricks)

The systems we’re building are much more complicated than 7+/- 2 variables. We need to better learn and understand how to manipulate the power of our subconscious brains, which excels at dealing with many more variables at a time, and then sending solutions to the prefrontal cortex.

High functioning creative people already rely on this part of their minds, but it’s not yet a science. It’s the odd occasions in the shower where insight strikes them.

What if we could use our physiology and computers to create insight on demand?

Only the Beginning, Let’s Work Together

As the body of evidence in favor of meditation keeps growing, I only see devices which allow us to better control our minds proliferating in the world.

Because our lives are becoming ever more complex, and the differences between the winners and the losers in modern society rests completely on our abilities to perform mentally.

If you’re interested in building this yourself, would like to see the code, or just want to have a very first version, please enter your email below, or leave a comment. I won’t spam you, I just want to gauge whether or not there’s a demand for a consumer device to provide an environment for hacking your mind.

I’d love to start working with other people to better the process of improving our minds.

Fill out my online form.