Brain-Evening in Waag Society

I just wrote that we won’t be writing reporting posts here, and then the first one I have to write after can be described as such, a reporting post, about one of the evens I have visited recently. But there are reports and report; what I meant is that we will try to avoid *mere* reporting posts (‘been there, done that’) but add some value to them, but at least sharing our opinion about these events and also hopefully placing them in a broader context.

The event I am talking about was called “A brain-stimulating evening”, and organised by the Waag Society in Amsterdam. Many gatherings can be called ‘brain-stimulating’ (perhaps any gathering can be labeled as such), but the pun with this particular one was that the even was about brain.

The Waag Society (which is in essence a research institute) was about to kick off its second edition of the so-called Hack the Brain contest, so it made all the sense to start with this opening discussion about ‘brain’, how we understand it, how we ‘hack’ it now, and how we can do it in the future (and should we).

The very first picture above shows some heraldic shield (with a skull), which is a part of the ceiling of the hall where the meeting was held:

Waag Society is lucky enough to occupy one of the oldest building in Amsterdam, called Waag, that used to serve as the city gate back in 15th century. Among many other roles it played during its old history the building also was an anatomical theater, which was also reminded to all the participants by the reproduction of the famous painting by Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp hanging in the hall.

Frank Kresin, research director of the Waag Society, tired to play around this fact in his opening remarks, pointing that back in the days of Rembrandt, we opened the body; today we would like to open the brain.

The program was officially opened by Karien Vermeulen, head of Creative Learning Lab at the Waag Society. The topic of this year Hack the Brain is education, and so Karien told about our common (mis)conception – as well as concepts – of how brain works, and how it can be ‘hacked’.

In essence, her short story was just a collection of the recent ‘brain-hacking’ projects, of various sorts: from serious academic investigations to more hoax-looking Kickstarter projects. It was interesting as an opener, but I would wish these projects and ideas to be discussed more in-depth, and more critically.

I have to add a bit of context here, the room was full, but also not so big, so the gathering was relatively homey. In principle I’d expect a bit more interactive atmosphere, with more Q&A, but this didn’t happen.

The really first presentation of the program was the talk by Nienke van Atteveldt, from Brij University in Amsterdam. Here I have to preempt my comment by saying about my own background. Not only I am a psychologist by training (in fact, clinical psychologist), but I am also actively involved in one of the working groups on the neuronet,  an emerging concept of a mind-network enabled by the new breed of technology (I wrote about one of our gathering last year, albeit very briefly – NeuroWeb: The future of… us?)

With this background I of course found the story of Nienke van Atteveldt a bit superficial. There was nothing it it that I wouldn’t know from the day of my school (which was a number of decades ago!) And it was not only me, my 15-old sun basically said the same, ‘It’s a wikipedia story, I would get 6 in class if I presented it in this way.’  I sense he was not alone in the audience who shared similar considerations.

Ok, there was one ‘new’ element, since Nienke van Atteveldt referred to one of the recent movies, Lucy, by Luc Besson. For those of you who didn’t see it yet, the plot is centered around the girl (Lucy aka Scarlett Johansson) who suddenly became capable of using all 100% of her brain capacities (as opposed to the popular urban myth about 10% allegedly used by the rest of us.)

Now, Nienke van Atteveldt was eager to discard this myth as, well, a myth, stating that we in fact already use ‘all segments of our brain’. I am not here to support the myth, but the counter-argument was really weak. We may as well use *all* the segments of our brain, but we may use them inefficiently, and there are perhaps certain tools and ‘technologies’ that could help us to over-cloak it.

In fact, one of these technologies is the very ‘education’ that this Hack the Brain was dedicated this year. But we also saw a much more tangible, if may say, example of brain-hacking, demonstrated by Boris Konrad, one of the world champions in the so called ‘memory sport’ and also himself a neuroscientist.

When we were all entering the building, Boris was hanging around reception area, as if greeting and shaking hands to all the guests. During the event we all understood what he was in fact doing. Earlier he was memorising all our names, and then during the talk he made an impressive demonstration of his skills, by asking all the people who he shook the hands with to stand up.

He was then able to recall the names of 30+ people (including mine and my son’s one), and only two or three with a minimal aid (he asked the first letter of the name). Not only it was impressive, but Boris also admitted that he didn’t have any super-power in the beginning but learn to remember the things very well using various techniques.

One of these  techniques he also demonstrated and explained in details (and we all remembered all the presidents of the EU, I guess, till the end of our lives). The trick itself is not new, it is similar to the ‘mental walks’ employed by the famous Memory Man (Solomon Shereshevsky) studied by Alexander Luria.

The demonstration of Boris was followed by scientific explanation provided by his colleague from the Donders Institute in Nijmegen, Martin Dresler. In essence, the key message (the beast) of his story is that indeed, memory skills can be learned, by everybody, and can surprisingly quickly improve one’s memory very significantly.

But I am jumping in my story a bit ahead. Due to late arrival of some speakers we had changes in the program, and it was Peter-Paul Verbeek, the Philosopher of Technology,  who spoke after Nienke van Atteveldt (he was supposed to speak last).

It was a pleasure to meet Peter-Paul again, we made a number of not so successful attempts to catch-up during the last year, in either Twente or Eindhoven, but finally met in Amsterdam, albeit shortly.

Peter-Paul’s was not so much about brain, and brain hacking per se, as about our general conceptualisation of our relationships with technology, the concept of cyborg (which we all are, by the very definition of ‘human’ – though I am not sure it’s his definition.)

Peter-Paul also presented the latest framework they use to describe the ‘human-technology relations’ (I understand it’s not only his own framework but of a community of thinkers broadly defining themselves as ‘post-phenomenologists’).

Most recently this framework was presented in a compact and not too heavy a way in the paper ‘Beyond Interaction. On Interaction Design and Philosophy of Technology‘, published in May-June issue of Interaction; small issue is that I can’t access this magazine online at the moment, though the paper was available just a few weeks ago. May be they will fix the website soon.

To my taste, this was most interesting presentation, and potentially most promising in terms of igniting some debates and discussion (i.e., stimulating the brains, as promised). But the timing was too short, and the format didn’t allow any questions, a pity.

We then had a break (or braink, as slip-tongued Frank, but perhaps it was a prepared joke). With the break we also had ice-cream – and it worth to mention that it was one of the hottest spring days in history, with temperature raising to 32 C.

The second part of the event was shorter, and bit more populistic. The pretext was interesting, the idea was to present the results of the study of a ‘creating brain’, and literally creating.

Arnon Grunberg, Dutch writer (left), has apparently approached Ysbrand van der Werf (right), neurologist from Vrij University, with an idea to study his brain while he is writing his new book.  But this story was not really presented during the talk anyway (and I guess, nothing special was revealed during this ‘study’ – surprise, surprise).

Instead, Ysbrand van der Werf entertained the public with the ‘real things’, i.e., real brains in his hand (of a calf, for a record):

 At the end we’ve been all offered to eat the brain, by Joël Broekaert, journalist and culinary columnist with NRC.

For me it was all a bit… not even slaughterous per se, but vulgar, and in fact totally misleading the discussion. But to explain why we should not focus on ‘brain’ too much when thinking about ‘mind’, and ‘intelligence’, and ‘learning, and ‘self’, ‘personality’, ‘identity’ and many other important things would take way more space then a simple posting allows.

I would thus round this story with a concluding image; for me the gathering was interesting, but too much leaning to the left side of this picture below. I’d love to see the meetings of this sort more leaning to the right one.

PS: I later found that the event is briefly described on the website of Waag Society – see Hack the Brain’15.

PPS: I also posted the images from the event to my Facebook, where you can also find larger pics.

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