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Q&A: Moran Cerf, hacker-turned-neuroscientist, on controlling the human brain

Posting in Science

A neuroscientist shares the simple way we can control our thoughts.

Moran Cerf spent nearly a decade as a computer hacker. But after an encounter with a world-renowned scientist, Cerf decided to turn his hacking skills toward a new subject: the brain. With just a few years of neuroscience work under his belt, Cerf is part of some of the most innovative research on the brain to date.

I spoke recently with Cerf about studying seizure patients, how we can control our thoughts and the many 'people' inside our minds. Below are excerpts from our interview.

You're a hacker-turned-neuroscientist. How did you end up in neuroscience?

I went to school in Israel for physics. I did a master's in philosophy of science. I never imagined I would be a neuroscientist. I spent a lot of time working as a hacker. That was my job. While traveling to test bank security, I met a famous and important scientist, Francis Crick, and talked to him about consciousness. It was this elusive thing, which I didn't know people could study. With his encouragement, I decided I wanted to try to do that. Since he was sort of a hacker who was able to break the code of life -- our DNA -- he felt that figuring out how the brain works is similar to hacking. I decided to move from Israel to California. I thought I would try science for a few months to see those similarities and also to understand the techniques used. After six months working on consciousness and the brain, I decided to quit my job and apply to Caltech.

What are you working on now?

I'm part of a team that runs studies on humans while they are being monitored with electrodes implanted deep inside their brains. This is unique, allowing us to eavesdrop on the activity of individual nerve cells inside a human brain. We work with patients who have severe problems that require brain surgery, for potential resection of the focus of an epileptic seizure. Most people with epilepsy take medication to reduce the seizures, but a small number of patients are candidates for an invasive surgery [resection] that removes the seizure focus and stops the seizures. You want to find the smallest amount of brain you can resect to stop the seizure. The surgeons put electrodes around the part of the brain that is suspected as the seizure onset site. Then the neurologists can monitor the activity inside the patient's brain and wait until the patient has experienced a number of seizures in the course of a few days while they are in the hospital. One can then monitor the flow of the seizures and isolate the exact source before resecting the site that causes the seizures. Then the surgeons remove the electrodes and resect the part of the brain where the seizures originate. The patient walks away seizure-free.

As researchers, we use this unique opportunity to work with a patient who is awake with electrodes deep inside his or her brain to study cognition. The patients who are in the hospital waiting to have seizures for the doctor are happy to help science by participating in studies. These studies allow us unique access to the building blocks of thought, memories and emotions in a way that is rarely accessible otherwise in humans. There are only a small number of people in the world who have had their brains opened and have participated in studies where scientists recorded directly from within their brain. We ask the patients about their feelings, for example, while looking inside the brain using those micro-electrodes, and we can see how their answers indicate how the brain works. We can map the brain and learn how the brain operates slowly using this unique way, by looking inside the brain of a person who is sitting in front of us.

In one study, we had people look at images. When you look at a picture of, say, your mother, there is a part of your brain that becomes active as you recognize her. Other parts come to life when you think about something else (say, Marilyn Monroe or Big Ben in London). We can decode these thoughts by looking at the patterns that become active when you see an image of one thing and when you later think about that thing voluntarily. We then are able to see what they're thinking of as they think. At the same time, we can decode their current thought on these things and effectively project those to the patients in front of their eyes. You can actually show patients their thoughts. Even more interesting for us is we can look at competing thoughts. We can put two images on the screen and tell them to think of only one of them and see how this competition is resolved inside the brain.

What are the implications of this work? Why should everyone care about it?

All people have memories and emotions. Our studies give us access to these. We use our memory and emotions all the time, but we know little about how the mechanisms work. We can find out how we can do better at controlling our thoughts or how to control our emotions. With the patients we can both look inside their brain as they do those things, but unlike [with] monkeys or rats in labs, also ask them to tell us what they did. This way, we can learn what brain patterns correlate with behavior. For example, some people are better at making decisions fast. Some are better at making decisions slow. Some are better in the morning or the evening. Now we can quantify that and find what brain regions get active or silent when you perform those task, and learn about the cognitive ways to perform them as well as their neural correlates.

You talked about learning from your research what methods work for controlling thoughts. Can you describe a technique that anyone can practice?

It will sound so simple. For instance, in one of our studies we wanted subjects to override one thought with another. On the screen was a depiction of one thought (say, an image of an animal). We wanted to patient to think of something else (say, of an item they liked). We asked them to find a way to look at the animal, but think of the item. And since we have the ability to view the patterns of activity elicited from thinking both on the animal and the item we could see what they are thinking of at any given moment. We did not tell them how to do it, but asked them to ultimately make the image of the animal disappear and make an image of the item appear as they think about it. The patients tried various methods to not think of the white bear, but often times learned that something very simple works: to just say out loud the name of the item. In order to say something, you have to 'think it.' And by thinking of the item, they evoked the patterns of brain activity associated with thinking of the item. This helped our decoder interpret their thoughts and gradually manifest the image of the item on the screen.

In a PopTech talk you said, 'There are at least two people inside our mind.' What does that mean?

Psychologists have suggested for a while now that we are the sum of multiple centers of clusters of activities that vie for dominance. But ultimately, we speak in one voice. This is us. It's a person who speaks, acts and behaves for all of them. In our brain, there are centers of activities that experience the world moment to moment. There are centers that evaluate these experiences and select what to store and how to encode it. There are multiple others who shape our decisions by a weighted combination of all their inputs. They control our emotions and evoke all sorts of feelings that seem to dawn on us rather than be chosen. With these studies, we can actually voice these other 'persons' in our brain and pit them against each other. All these people in our brain are competing to be the one that speaks. We can now have a better understanding how they do so.

What keeps you up at night as you continue to work on this?

I'm not worried about the technology being exploited by people for malicious reasons. It's really hard to do that. Like most scientists, we have to keep making sure we truly benefit our patients and the world and keep being creative. The checks and balances in the world force us to repeatedly convince our peers that looking inside the brain is important, that it is worth funding and that the things we learn from it are valuable. I believe they are, which makes it easy. The only concern I have now is that I won't be creative enough to come up with new ideas that would make the most of this extraordinary way of studying the brain.

What's next for you and this work?

I've been trying for the last two years to bring this work to the public. The nature of scientists is they're usually more introverted. Published works go to science journals and are read by scientists alone. I want to speak about our work to a general audience. I took a position at a business school. I teach MBAs. I travel a lot and give many public talks in schools and public institutes. I'm trying to talk to companies about this work and increase the understanding of it by the general public. I feel it is my duty to make it clear and accessible for everyone. Scientists have many skills that are important outside of merely doing the work. I try to allocate about 20 percent of my time to looking outward and speaking publicly about our work, while maintaining the majority of my time doing research I love. My background in performance and theater gives me an advantage in being able to tell a story about science that is compelling. This is lacking often in labs.

For our research, we have a number of exciting studies that are now converging that tackle questions of controlling not only your thoughts, but also your feelings and choices. We also have a unique work that I'm excited about currently that offers ways to measure how engaged people are in content. This is quite applicative and I see a lot of potential in interacting with industry on ways to put this to use to make sure important messages get delivered accurately in an interesting fashion. Knowing how to be engaging, tell a story and make sure it was registered is invaluable.

Photo: Moran Cerf

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure