Can a machine know us better than we know ourselves?

Tan Le, who’s spent the last eight years developing Insight, a headset that purports to read our brains, is betting the answer is yes. But can that machine go so far as to change us?

Even Le — who makes a living turning science fiction into reality — knows that’s too good to be true. But she’s hoping her headsets can help us change ourselves.

Le is the CEO and founder of tech startup Emotiv, whose sole mission is to figure out what’s going on in our heads. Le is convinced understanding our tangled mess of emotions and thoughts is key to improving our mental health. She argues we’re too bewildered by stress and distractions to consider how stressed and distracted we are — and how and whether they can be mitigated.

What her brainwave-tracking Insight offers is a way to turn mental issues into quantifiable data, sort of like a FitBit for brains. After all, when something can be counted, its progress can be tracked. Le spoke to Inverse about tracking Denver Bronco Paxton Lynch’s ability to focus, the potential to unlock telekinesis, and turning mental health into a game.

For Emotiv CEO Tan Le, quantifying our personal brain data is the first step to figuring out how to unlock its potential.
For Emotiv CEO Tan Le, quantifying our personal brain data is the first step to figuring out how to unlock its potential.

So let me get this straight: this headset reads what’s going on in your brain, then quantifies it?

If you’re interested in tracking something like your ability to focus, then you can actually do that. I don’t know if you saw a recent episode on ESPN when we were tracking Paxton Lynch’s ability to focus. Focus is not just being able to get into that focused state, but it’s also about being able to filter out distractions as well. With him, he had obstacles that he had to duck through, and yet he still had to throw the ball. He could only throw when the ring showed a green light. He had moving objects distracting him. And during that state of play, his focus level was intensely high — in the nineties. It was amazing to me that someone could actually hold focus for such an extended period of time. When he sat down and spoke to us, his focus level dropped down to the mid-seventies. I’m like, “Huh. That’s really quite crazy.”

What else can it track?

The other thing we can also do is we can track stress. Short-term stress actually helps to improve your focus temporarily and your alertness. But if you have long-term, sustained stress, it’s debilitating on your health, your productivity levels, and it’s really damaging on so many levels. So being able to understand stress and monitor it and track it is very, very important because what happens often with stress is that we become more acclimated to a certain level of stress.

Essentially, the headset is a data collection tool.

Exactly. It’s being able to get longitudinal information about yourself in an objective way so that you can understand the triggers, the things that help to boost your performance, or things that actually help cause depletion or deterioration in performance. So it’s very useful to have that information available to you.

What are users supposed to do with the data?

[There’s] a companion app that helps you track your mental performance and cognitive performance across a whole range of activities. As you see these different things, you have small tasks that help you to learn to improve your focus. Similarly, if you have high levels of stress, we have lots of recommendations on things that you can do, whether it be breathing exercises or even spending some time in nature, [which] can help alleviate the attentional networks in the brain.

Essentially, quantifying brain activity turns mental improvement into a game.

The brain is a very adaptive learning machine, and so being able to give it new activities that you haven’t given it before helps to excite that muscle. The thing is [these are] learned skills, so you do become better at [them] over time.

Is the act of seeing our numbers “improve” part of what makes the Insight feel useful?

Sometimes you need that little bit of a nudge to have affirmation. It’s very difficult to change behavior unless you can [see results] — and the brain is something that you can’t see. The brain is the most adaptive organ in the body and it changes over time, but the changes are very subtle. It’s not obvious that there’s something wrong until it’s too late. And that’s the problem: When you have an opportunity to have an objective measurement that allows you to have some sort of insight into what’s going on in your brain and how it’s working, it provides a level of understanding and knowledge that previously wasn’t available.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to use the data to fix our own problems.

Exactly. Unfortunately right now we don’t have a way to take a pill and magically shed all our weight. It takes dedication, it takes work. And it’s the same thing with the brain. It takes work, but you need tools to help you get there.

Does the potential to improve our brain in this way have limits?

We’ve been able to really extend our physical well-being in very unnatural ways because we’ve learned a lot more about how we can improve the human body. Life expectancy used to be 40 years. But as we improve our understanding of science and the human body and our physical well-being, we can extend that. Similarly, the biological brain isn’t designed to last a hundred years, but if we’re able to understand it, if we’re able to intervene, if we’re able to help it stay and maintain its resiliency and its agility, then yes, we’re going to be able to have much, much better brain health well into the future.

Medical science continues to extend human life, [but] we unfortunately can’t replace our brains. If we’re living well into our nineties, the thing that’s going to allow us to enjoy our life is being able to talk to our friends, being able to walk and balance ourselves, being able to have an interesting conversation, being able to go and enjoy places and interact… then it’s kind of pointless. So that’s our hope.

Is there any possibility of using this data to unlock parts of the brain we’ve never tapped into before?

Well, ultimately the brain is the center of our personal universe. It defines everything about us. Once we can tap into this asset, it offers us almost limitless potential. We can affect our world with it, move things using our mind, we can have our environment change according to how we feel. Dynamically, it allows us to understand ourselves, to track brain conditions. I think we can unlock so many possibilities.

Photos via Emotiv

Yasmin is a writer and former biologist living in New York. A Toronto girl at heart, her writing also appears in The Last Magazine and SciArt in America. You might recognize her as a past host of Scientific American's YouTube series.