The most merciful thing in the world... is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
SELPHIE OF THE AUTHOR 2025
The question of how we think—and fail to think—is one I contemplate regularly. My primary interest stems from the fundamental importance of cognition where writing is concerned. The mind drives the process. If you don’t think clearly, you won’t write with clarity—not to mention entertainingly. Wit isn’t a product of your feet. It’s a quality of your mind (well, of some minds).
My secondary interest is more general. I’m fascinated by the power of the mind, how we mostly fail to harness that power, and by the fact that no one really knows—in a direct sense—how another thinks. Yes, we know what people say, we read body language, and we know what people actually do—but that’s not the same as having full access to another’s thoughts. And then there is the detail that people can be deceptive—in fact we even deceive ourselves.
I was going to say that the one exception where mind-reading is involved refers to a writer’s fictional characters. After all, if you create a character, surely you must know exactly how they think? The author is God in that context.
Well, you do—at first—but fictional characters have the intriguing habit of seeming to go their own way after a while. They develop minds of their own.
Go write a book—and you’ll see for yourself. If it is an illusion—which logic tells me it must be—it’s a powerful one.
But the matter at hand is whether the mind can be improved or not. The answer, as we all know, is that it can. Introduce a good education, read widely and well, travel, fall in and out of love, have plenty of good sex, have extensive experience of life—and write daily for a few decades—and modest wonders can be achieved.
But isn’t there a faster way—drugs apart?
It turns out that there just might be. DARPA have just sponsored an investigation into transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS)—stimulating the brain with electric current (little more than nine-volt batteries hooked up to sponges embedded with metal and taped to a person’s scalp)—and the results have been impressive. Let me quote from The Atlantic Magazine’s excellent piece.
Under certain conditions, subjects receiving the full dose of current outperformed the others by a factor of two. And they performed especially well on tests administered an hour after training, indicating that what they’d learned was sticking. Simply put, running positive electrical current to the scalp was making people learn faster.
Dozens of other studies have turned up additional evidence that brain stimulation can improve performance on specific tasks. In some cases, the gains are small—maybe 10 or 20 percent—and in others they are large, as in theDARPA study. Vince Clark, a University of New Mexico psychology professor who was involved with the DARPA work, told me that he’d tried every data-crunching tactic he could think of to explain away the effect of tDCS. “But it’s all there. It’s all real,” Clark said. “I keep trying to get rid of it, and it doesn’t go away.”
Now the intelligence-agency version of DARPA, known as IARPA, has created a program that will look at whether brain stimulation might be combined with exercise, nutrition, and games to even more dramatically enhance human performance. As Raja Parasuraman, a George Mason University psychology professor who is advising an IARPA team, puts it, “The end goal is to improve fluid intelligence—that is, to make people smarter.”
Whether or not IARPA finds a way to make spies smarter, the field of brain stimulation stands to shift our understanding of the neural structures and processes that underpin intelligence.
True, they haven’t yet got to the stage of proving that tDCS helps you write better—as such—but you can you can see the direction where things are heading.
It’s going to give the expression, “wired,” a whole new meaning. On the one hand, robots are being given human capabilities and characteristics at amazing speed. On the other hand, we humans are clearly heading towards becoming bionic—equipped with replaceable parts—and permanently connected to the internet. Comcast will control us all.
Between you, me, and the gatepost, I find all of this vaguely creepy—nearly as creepy as Facebook.
I’d write more on the subject—but my battery is going flat.