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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?

Top 10 Social Network Blunders Of 2014
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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Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
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1/14/2015 | 1:28:50 AM
Re: The end of crime?
David, 

The teenager's story is very sad. :( Most likely her pain was intolerable if she was ready to die. I believe the parents had a very selfish attitude thinking more about them losing a daughter than accepting the fact that their daughter couldn't tolerate the condition any longer. They should have respected her. The court also showed no respect toward the girl's will to end a painful and slow death. How sad. It's like if she were not the owner of her own body and wouldn't know what's best for her according to something only she can feel, and had no right whatsoever to decide on her own life.

The same I think about denying treatment to a child that could be saved otherwise.  

"And kids don't have protection in the cases where a parent makes a reasonable decision that goes poorly."

That's terrible. I said earlier that it's not easy to know what is right. I don't know how this is going to sound to you, but I believe in such cases, like the ones you mentioned, it's the child the one who should make the decision if the child has understanding of the situation; like the case of that teenager. 

Another thing is that each case should be taken individually instead of just following what the book says, which can work for some, but not for all. 

-Susan
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
1/14/2015 | 1:05:30 AM
Re: The end of crime?
David, 

I remember the one on drawing and math ability. Yes, I'll put them on my reading list. :) 

-Susan
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/13/2015 | 6:05:23 PM
Re: The end of crime?
@GAProgrammer0 to be fair to the scientists in question, I don't believe any of them are offering tests right now for anyone who wants them. I just suggested that it might be possible in the future. So it may be that all we are doing is learning about the brain and there never will be tests to determine these things. But we have GMO food so I assume one day we'll have GMO babies. Or at least people who want to try to change the babies they've got.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/13/2015 | 6:02:22 PM
Re: The end of crime?
@susan- for the most part, parents can give consent on behalf of kids for scientific research. And kids don't have protection in the cases where a parent makes a reasonable decision that goes poorly. For instance, if a child has a disease and the parent chooses to allow the child to take an experimental medicine to try to save the child's life, the child usually can't over rule the decision.

In fact, recently, a teenage girl asked to be allowed to die because she had cancer. The parents wanted her to fight on and try more potential cures. The girl actually sued her parents to let her die and the court ruled for the parents.

that said, in other cases, parents have denied treatment to a child (usually for religious reasons) and the government has ruled in favor of protecting the child. 

I guess if there is anything to learn from that, usually the government forces you to take your medicine. :)
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/13/2015 | 5:57:25 PM
Re: The end of crime?
@vnewman2- You're right. And I feel like I'd need a PhD in psychology and another is statistics to even begin to give informed consent and then understand the results. :)
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/13/2015 | 5:55:43 PM
Re: The end of crime?
@Susan- I couldn't read them all. I started to and I quickly fell down a rabbit hole of really interesting stuff. i had to stop myself in order to file a story. That said, I've actually covered a few in the Geekend before, including one on drawing and math abilities. 

The thing is that each one has strengths and weaknesses. the size of the test varies greatly based on funding. The choice of what to compare it to matters and some fields are more advanced than others. But if you've got time, the bibliography to this article is one of the best you'll ever see for the topic. 
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/13/2015 | 5:52:41 PM
Re: Expectations
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.


@tjgkg- On the other hand, if you treat a child like they won't be a murderer their whole lives, paying special care to consider what activities they do and how you talk to them, maybe the grow up as not a murderer. 

But you are right. The problem with this is not unlike a Star Trek episode where you are sent back in time to change the future. You have no idea what your actions will do to change the timeline. In getting a couple of humpback whales, you may also be accidentally changing the future of the world by giving them a technology they wouldn't have invented without you.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/13/2015 | 5:48:26 PM
Re: prediction
@Ariella- I totally get the phrenology comparison. And to a certain degree, we're not much farther along on the path than that. I think the only difference right now is that people who are doing it are being more careful. But it is difficult considering we're dealing with probabilities and potentials, not dead certainties.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
1/13/2015 | 11:18:02 AM
Re: The end of crime?
GAProgrammer, 

I am glad you had a good laugh with my silly idea. :) And yes, technology is advancing at a fascinating pace and the bad guys seem to be always around ready to see how they can make something horrible out of what was an idea intended for good. 

I also agree with you on your point that it's not necessary use something just because it is available if the outcome is not going to precisely be something positive. 

A couple of days ago, I read a story of a girl and her brother who were sentenced to prison for life first at the ages of 13 and 12. Then this was changed to an 18 year-sentence, I believe. The kids had been suffering from sexual abuse for years by a member of their family, in desperation they killed their father's girlfriend. The girl will be released this year at the age of 30 something. Her brother in 2017 because he tried to escape once. What kind of life awaits for them in a world where they never had the chance to know? A really sad and injust story. And I remembered about this article we are discussing now. Maybe you read about the case. It happened in the US. 

I wondered what would have happened if their brain would have been scanned when they were babies. Were they already predestined to murder someone being kids? Or was it more the result of the unfortunate life they had before they could even finish school? 

I thought it was really unfair to put those kids in jail on top of all the abuse they had suffered already at such a young age, with no experience of life whatsoever. 

-Susan

 
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
1/12/2015 | 11:42:08 PM
Re: Geekend: Predicting Your Future By Scanning Your Brain
I think there are other factors to consider if we will start scanning prisoners's brain to determine whether they will commit a crime after they leave prison.  I think this technology still needs some work.  Humans have a hard time predicting the future. Even futurists who suppose to be their job predict how society will change get it wrong.  How about having brain marker than would determine whether you will develop alzheimers or parkinson disease?
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