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1/9/2015
10:50 AM
David Wagner
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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