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1/9/2015
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David Wagner
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Geekend: Predicting Your Future By Scanning Your Brain

Is your entire future locked up in a few brain scans?

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Top 10 Social Network Blunders Of 2014
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Give me a few minutes and an MRI and I'll tell you whether you're going to be good at math, or drink too much this weekend, or even end up in jail. Well, maybe I can't, but a review of research on brain scans done by functional MRI, published in the journal Neuron, is showing we're starting to unlock the keys to certain behaviors that will predict future days (and sometimes decades) in advance.

It makes sense. While we tend to think of a brain as a brain, we all have variations in size and shape and function. Scientists call those "neuromarkers." A neuromarker might be something as simple as the size of a portion of your brain, or a measure of the activity inside a section, or even the metabolism in a part of a brain. Really, it is anything we can measure and show there is deviation. Some neuromarkers don't mean anything at all, but we're starting to see some that can mean a great deal.

Just as an example, if you have a higher-volume striatum, a part of your forebrain, you're probably going to be good at video games. This isn't a real shocker. The striatum helps govern movement, and we think it might also govern some "executive functions" like task flexibility and memory. Since video games are all about physical skills and task flexibility, having a big striatum is obviously a good thing.

[Maybe you should've done a brain scan during the hiring process. See 10 Signs You've Hired The Wrong Person.]

But some are less obvious and a little more ominous. One of the least successful areas of human psychology is understanding whether a person is likely to commit another crime after getting out of prison. Simply put, we're really bad at it. However, a study reviewed in the paper was able to strongly correlate whether a person would return to prison within four years based on whether he had a high or low activation rate in the anterior cingulate cortex. The correlation was much stronger than any previous method used to predict recurring crime. You don't need to know what the anterior cingulate cortex does (it deals with cognitive conflict) to see the frightening implications of this.

While predicting whether someone will commit a crime again is a benefit to society, an increased likelihood is not a certainty. Making decisions on bail, parole, or sentencing based on probabilities is rather frightening. And God forbid we start scanning people to see if they will commit their first crime before they've done anything wrong.

(Source: NIH)
(Source: NIH)

The amazing thing is that this paper reviewed dozens of studies just like these two. We have studies showing we can predict your future success in reading and math from infancy, how you will respond to psychological and pharmacological treatments for depression, and even your chances of using sunscreen.

They all have varying levels of success. Some do not necessarily live up to existing or less-expensive methods of determining certain outcomes. But many do. Many (bearing in mind many still have small sample sizes) are showing an ability to predict, better than current methods, your very future. Taking a single test to see how well you will play video games is one thing. But as we pile up these tests something frightening happens. We get to know your whole future.

With ample testing we could tell if a baby is going to be good at reading, be good at math, be an alcoholic, be a good musician, be a drug addict, be a criminal, use sunscreen, or be able to quit (or start) smoking. And that's just some of the 20+ potential outcomes reviewed in the study. They will continue to add up.

So here's the thing: Your brain at birth is not your total existence. Your experience matters, too. You might have a great big striatum and never play a video game or be an athlete or whatever. You might waste your striatum without ever knowing it. You also might have a tiny striatum but play video games every day and get better at them than me. (Well, actually no one is better at video games than me, but you get the point.)

Not all of these things are dead certainties. Some are probabilities, correlations, peeks into our potential. In some cases we can actually intervene and "fix" you. If we know at birth you are more likely to be an alcoholic, we might be able to intervene before you ever drink a beer.

But some are a little more certain -- like your response to certain medications. You can't practice being susceptible to certain drugs (although your experience with drugs can alter your susceptibility). Heck, we even have a test that shows whether you are more likely to feel the effects of a placebo.

Navigating these probabilities and certainties is going to be a tough job. We've seen science say we're 100% going to destroy the Earth if we don't reduce carbon emissions, and a bunch of people don't believe it or act as if they don't. Imagine if a scientist says, "That man is 60% likely to commit a crime." The political and social response would be insane. And imagine if that scientist said something like, "People with a certain skin color are more likely to have a neuromarker that makes them 60% more likely to commit a crime." Pandemonium.

On the other hand, what if a neuromarker said that we could keep someone from killing herself if we put her on this drug today, and she would feel like a happier, healthier version of herself? Or if a neuromarker said, "This child has musical gifts" -- give her a violin?

We're only scratching the surface, but we're scratching it as fast as a cat falling off a couch. We're going to have to be ready for when this early neuromarker knowledge becomes mature enough that scientists can start making predictions we may or may not want to hear. What will you do when a test can tell you your baby isn't that smart, even before it says its first words? Or if it tells you he or she could be a genius?

Would you take these tests? How would you act, based on the results? Should governments make use of them in legal cases? In effect, how much of you and your future are predestined by your brain? Share your thoughts (assuming they aren't pre-destined) in the comments.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
1/9/2015 | 4:17:48 PM
prediction
I know this is much more scientific, but it still reminds me of the false science popular in the 19th century --phrenology.
tjgkg
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tjgkg,
User Rank: Ninja
1/9/2015 | 4:53:57 PM
Expectations
Imagine if you take a child to have of these scans and the results are ominous. The findings are shared with the parents. Now the parents are told the child has a high probability of being a murderer yet has never exhibited any such behaviours, in fact they are quite the opposite. How are the parents going to react? Are they going to raise the child as if the test never took place? WIll they be suspicious and careful? Will they be fearful? Would they be aggressive and try to raise the child in a religious type of environment?

I remember studying Thomas Szaz in college. He said if you treat someone like they are schizophrenic, they will act like one even though they may not have a mental illness. That is what i feel might happen with these tests. Parents might start treating their children differently based on these tests which might make the results a reality.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
1/9/2015 | 5:24:38 PM
Re: Expectations
tjgkg,

Not far from reality. Thomas Szaz was quite right. Not going as far as treating someone as if he suffered from schizophrenia, but constantly repeating to someone that he is stupid usually convinces the person and lowers his self-confidence in a dramatic way, which obviously will affect his future and make his look as if he were stupid. Suggestopaedia is a quite powerful tool, usually used by NLP.

-Susan
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
1/9/2015 | 6:08:18 PM
The end of crime?
David, 

Did you read the studies? I would like to read them all. I have plenty of questions about this. 

Then, this occured to me: What if in the future, this is applied to all babies as soon as they are born. According to the results, then they are immediately killed, or sent to a pre-determined special area where they a group of scientists will help them develop whatever skill they have impressed in the brain, because, why waste time?

And the ones who are immediately killed is for a logical reason: Why to feed a criminal when you can save the trouble to society, a society that by then will be as safe (?) as you can imagine thanks to this procedure. Wow! I love this story now for a fiction book. :D Thanks for the inspiration, Dave. :) I'll send you a signed copy. 

-Susan 
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
1/9/2015 | 7:36:47 PM
Re: The end of crime?
I would personally love to take such tests, having studied psychological assessment testing extensively in graduate school, but before admininstering such tests you were obligated to give infomed consent to the subject so they knew what they doing, why they were doing it, and risks involved.  So performing testing like this on individuals not capable of providing informed consent opens up a pandora's box of ethical issues in my eyes.

The ability to use such knowledge to intervene to in order to improve an undesirable outcome is noble, but it is such a slippery slope.  
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
1/10/2015 | 3:12:08 AM
Re: The end of crime?
vnewman, 

I would like to take the tests, too. If I am not a criminal by now I doubt I will become one. But you never know, of course. 

"So performing testing like this on individuals not capable of providing informed consent opens up a pandora's box of ethical issues in my eyes."

Ahh, good point. :) Yes, I agree. But, in the case of children, if their parents give their consent those babies/kids are defenseless and may pay the consequences for the rest of their life. I am not familiar with the rights of kids; I assume kids have some rights that protect them from the bad decisions of their parents. If not, and f these kind of tests can take off, it would be wise to have some some conscious people drawing some lines on this matter. It's not simple, though. Then you can also question why strangers should have more power of decision over your own kids. :/

-Susan 
batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
1/12/2015 | 8:17:51 AM
Re: Expectations
@tjgkg interesting point, I could not agree more... as with human brain and body we still have a lot to learn....
GAProgrammer
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GAProgrammer,
User Rank: Ninja
1/12/2015 | 9:13:52 AM
Re: The end of crime?
LOL sorry Susan but you'll have to go to the back of the line. There are a number of sci-fi short stories that are based on this very idea - that we use science for the purpose of the betterment of mankind. It also asks the reader - are the methods and outcomes truly moral? I recall a short story where a boy is being tested and you are given the impression that if he tests too low it will be bad. Well, the child scored too high and was killed just the same, in the name of equality.

I often make the case on many sites and forums - we live in a fascinating time when we have an explosion of technology. However, just because we CAN do something doesn't mean we SHOULD. Technologists and well-meaning people look blindly at the possibilites of technology without factoring in the reality of humanity. There are a lot of really bad, evil people in this world who will turn the postitive into a negative. Anything that can be used can also be misused.

Also, there are laws that are SUPPOSED to protect children from the bad decisions of their parents, but only in the most extreme situations (abuse, neglect, etc). There are no laws that do anything to children whose parents raise them with bad morals, or horrible money management skills, or lack of structure. Again, another road we probably don't want to go down...
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
1/12/2015 | 5:41:39 PM
Re: Geekend: Predicting Your Future By Scanning Your Brain
This is a topic that's on my mind farily often. As you guys have pointed out, the idea that we shouldn't use technology to a given end just because we can is as old as time itself and a popular topic in sci-fi; At the same time, Dave makes a very important point that the age where this is reality rather than fiction may be coming sooner than we think; in fact, it may already be here. I find myself thinking of those data tablets in Star Trek - the tablet computers we carry around every day would seem to have a lot more functionality already, and Star Trek is supposed to be quite a ways off yet. In other words, the decisions we make on these brain scans now (or soon) may have a more direct correlation to the final outcome than we realize.

I tend to err on the less-fatalistic side of the equation, but then again, maybe that's just because I have a neuromarker that's telling me to :). In all seriousness, There is a conundrum here, and it's one we're facing a lot these days. Should we really make self-driving cars? Is it really healthy to binge-watch five seasons of a show on Netflix in one day? This is basically the pinnacle of that  'can vs. should' question. Examples about assigning children jobs at birth are extreme but relevant. On a practical note, I'd like to raise the question of just how definitive and objective current tests are. Dave mentions a 'high' or 'low' activation rate in a certain part of the brain - this seems a little more open to interpretation than, say, looking for a certain concentration of a substance in the blood. Are we really ready to put that part of the equation in doctors' hands yet? Additional food for thought.
LeeB120
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LeeB120,
User Rank: Strategist
1/12/2015 | 11:15:07 PM
Re: prediction
1984...... we are geting closer and closer every day.
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