Math geniuses, musical savants, and synesthetes wander in and out of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research on an hourly basis. That’s because Berit Brogaard studies people with extraordinary mental abilities. And does that sort of thing intimidate her? No, and here’s why: Brogaard doesn’t think that exceptional people are exceptional at all. She thinks we can all be superhuman if we know how to put our minds to it.
Brogaard, a synesthete herself, believes we can learn to unlock our abilities, to level up. In her new book The Superhuman Mind: Free The Genius In Your Brain, she discusses the ways we can train our minds to do extraordinary things. Inverse asked Brogaard and co-author Kristian Marlow about their work and what we can do to become geniuses too.
Dr. Brogaard, What is the unusual form of synesthesia you have, and how did it save your life and lead to your research in this field?
I have fear-to-color-shape/motion synesthesia. A particular rotating bluish-green image forms across my visual field when I experience intense fear. When I lived in Australia, I was once hiking in the rainforest, and suddenly the image showed up. I was rather surprised, because I had yet to consciously experience any fear. However, a few seconds later I realized that I was very close to a seriously poisonous brown snake. Its venom can kill you in 30 minutes. I was able to avoid the snake, thanks to my synesthesia. I had been interested in synesthesia ever since I first heard about the condition in high school, but I didn’t get to study the condition until many years later, when I was able to start a lab devoted mostly to the study of this condition.
You’ve found that individuals with superhuman abilities, like people with extraordinary memories, math savants, and musical virtuosos, are more often than not synesthetes or people who have experienced brain injury. How is it possible that us “normal” folk can experience that, too?
In The Superhuman Mind, we outline a number of strategies for how ordinary individuals can work towards gaining extraordinary cognitive abilities. In many cases, the first step is learning an algorithm or mnemonic. This step can later be skipped when the algorithm or mnemonic is internalized by our brains, which means that we can perform the skill automatically.
In theory, anyone can become a synesthete by training the brain to rewire itself, but it takes time — up to 10,000 hours. What’s happening in the brain during that training period? Are some forms of synesthesia easier to train for compared to others?
The brain has a natural tendency to bolster the connections between closely related concepts, but mnemonics provide an extra “push” that causes the brain to strengthen the connections between concepts that are more distantly related. For example, the more often you entertain the idea of “chair-butter,” the stronger and more numerous the connections become between the neurons that fire when you think of chairs and the neurons that fire when you think of butter. Over time, the association becomes automatic similar to how a letters are associated with colors in grapheme-color synesthesia. You experience this effect in your mind’s eye, which means that thinking of one concept triggers the thought of another concept. It has yet to be demonstrated, however, whether mnemonics can strengthen the associations to the point at which they generate conscious experience like that of some synesthetes who might experience the taste of butter when thinking of a chair.
It seems that a lot of superhuman mental abilities can be “unlocked” when a part of the brain is silenced. For example, in your book you tell the story of John, whose front temporal dementia led to the development of remarkable artistic talent. How does this happen, and how might we mimic the effects?
The brain is a complex machine made up of a variety of parts, which must function together to carry on a myriad of tasks, which include things like generating conscious experience, regulating hormones, and reacting to environmental stimuli. So that we can survive in the dynamic world outside the skull, a myriad of inhibitory processes ensure that all this information is processed efficiently. But some of the inhibitory processes that are crucial to our survival also inhibit us from using the creative parts of the brain to their fullest potentials. One way of stepping around the inhibition problem is to use electronic stimulation and medications. Another way to get around this creative bar is to use lucid dreaming to do your thinking while you’re asleep.
You discuss the ways we can train ourselves to lucid dream, but how can lucid dreaming unlock our superhuman abilities?
Sleep turns the dial down on the brain’s inhibitory processes, allowing creativity to play a more active role in your thinking. You might be thinking, “Okay, but how am I supposed to capitalize on the creative aspect of my brain when I’m stuck in the dream world?” The key is to gain lucidity—a state where you are conscious of the fact you are dreaming. Becoming lucid allows you to take control of your dreams so that you play a more active role in the dream narrative. From here you can generate situations that aid in uncovering the answers to problems in your life solvable only with the help of unfettered creativity. It’s a fantastic experience, and it still counts as rest.
What’s the most remarkable example of learned synesthesia you’ve come across?
The most remarkable case of learning a synesthesia-like condition we have experienced is that of a blind subject of ours, GB. Although she is blind, she has taught herself a kind of sound-to-vision synesthesia. She has visual imagery automatically corresponding to the sounds she hears. The visual imagery is sometimes an accurate representation of the external world and sometimes not. Her condition is different from cases where blind people rely on echolocation to navigate. In the latter case, blind people make a sound and the sound then reflects from the entity it hits. This is the echo. On the basis of the echo the people who master this technique can determine the shape of things, how far away the thing is, and so on. GB, by contrast, might hear a sound, say the sound of a barking dog, and a dog may appear inside her mind as a visual image that can make it appear to her that she is actually seeing a dog, even though she is blind.
How has your work changed the way you see the human brain?
It has made us respect the human brain even more than we did before we began our studies. The brain is a fascinating organ. Although there are some respects in which this three-pound organ is like a computer, computers are not even close in potential to the brain. The very fact that the brain can rewire itself and generate new neurons throughout life is awe-inspiring. This means that as long as you are healthy, there are few limitations to what you can do, regardless of age.
We really hope The Superhuman Mind can help us get rid of the myth of biological essentialism: According to this myth, who we are and what we can do are fixed from birth and can only be changed in small ways when we mature and go through the aging process. But this is clearly false.