In Conversation: Nathan Whitmore, Cognitive Neuroscientist, MIT Fluid Interfaces Group

Cognitive neuroscientist Nathan Whitmore is a postdoctoral associate in the Fluid Interfaces Group of MIT’s Media Lab. He considers how technology can be used to align brain function with goals. He is working on three big projects at the moment: a memory prosthesis to help boost learning and treat memory disorders, an app to improve sleep quality, and an app to induce lucid dreams (in which the dreamer is aware and can control their environment).

He presented his work on sleep and memory during a lecture at the “Augmenting Brains” symposium. He also demonstrated the memory device he is designing during the “Augmenting Brains: After Dark” event. 

Q: Can you describe your work for me briefly?

Nathan Whitmore: Sleep is a period of time where the brain changes itself. It’s a  restorative time, but also seems to be a time where memories are processed. Short-term memories are made into long-term,which frees up short-term space so you can learn new things. And we have extensive research showing that memories of things that happened the previous day can be strengthened using a sensory cue like a sound to make the brain replay specific memories in sleep. My collaborators and I are working on a mobile phone app to improve sleep quality. The app runs on your phone and monitors your sleep, and when you are in deep sleep, it plays sounds that can make you sleep deeper. I’m looking at whether a device like this can improve quality of life and cognitive function.

We’re also working on a smart watch that would play a vibration pattern when something is happening that you really want to remember, and then at night replay that vibration, to prompt you, because we’ve seen in research that reactivating a specific memory in sleep can strengthen it

Q: The goal of the Dana project is to develop activities that benefit from the contributions of neuroscientists, ELSI scholars, and public engagement experts, while providing value to people from all three domains. Did participating in Augmenting Brains and the demo night show you ways that these domains might influence each other? Did you take away unique value from working on an activity where these domains intersect?

Nathan Whitmore: The public engagement part is, I think, really valuable for neuroscientists. You get to see what people think about these technologies. That’s really useful for when we’re thinking about, ‘How do we communicate about this?’ We have so much specialized knowledge that you kind of lose track sometimes. It’s also really interesting to see what people find important. Like in the demo, we gave people the dream device, and hearing the questions that they asked was really valuable. 

Q: What did participants say, along those lines, that stood out for you?

Nathan Whitmore: This is a fairly technical thing. But it was interesting to me that people don’t really have a great idea of what REM sleep is, or how sleep works. They don’t know much about the science of dreams. People thought REM was the deepest phase of sleep. That was interesting and useful for me. I realized when I’m communicating about my research, I should do more of an introduction about how basic sleep science works. 

Q: Why is it important for you to have the public understand your work, and to communicate with the public in a way that reaches people? 

Nathan Whitmore: To me the biggest reason is, I ultimately want to develop interventions that people are using in their daily lives—and for that it is important that people have a sense not only of why this is important but also what’s going on, why do these things work. 

On the flip side, there’s a lot of pseudoscience out there, and often it can be quite harmful, especially when it comes to the brain and sleep. You have people saying, “Oh, you only need three hours of sleep,” stuff like that, which makes me feel like it’s really important for people to understand the science, to counter that. 

Q: As a person with major depressive disorder, I have experienced a lot of trouble sleeping, and a lot of poor-quality sleep, so I’m curious: Is that something that might be improved with a device similar to the ones you’re working on? 

Nathan Whitmore: It’s not something we’re currently working on. We might in the future. The relationship between sleep and depression is weird: People who are depressed don’t sleep well and yet we sometimes also use sleep deprivation as a treatment for treatment-resistant depression, usually, because that can have a very strong antidepressant effect. The brain might upregulate some of the dopamine and serotonin systems to try and compensate for the fact that you’re very tired. It’s really interesting because it has a very strong antidepressant effect, but it is not sustainable. So an interesting research question is: Is there anything that could harness that effect but is not as intense as complete sleep deprivation? I’m not currently working on that now, but I think it’s a really interesting question, one that you could think about more once you get more tools to manipulate sleep.<< 

Q: One vision for a potential Center for Neuroscience and Society at MIT is to break the work of the Center up into two-year project cycles. If you had two years, what would you do at an MIT Dana Center? How has the planning you've done, and the events you've done, informed what you'd like to do?

Nathan Whitmore: I’d really like a project through which neuroscientists and cybersecurity work together on devices like the ones we’re developing at the Fluid Interfaces Lab. Something that isn’t being discussed is: How do you make these systems secure? These are devices that allow us, in a limited way, to program the brain. What if they were used on someone without their consent?

And it would be cool to invite the public to any lectures or discussion that the neuroscientists and cybersecurity experts do—talking about security implications, ethical implications. The devices that I’m working on aren’t implanted in the brain, so people don’t necessarily see how they might be risky, or what the security implications are. And a lot of devices and programs that will influence brain function will be available sooner than people think.

Another important question that neuroscientists and cybersecurity experts should address together is: How do we make sure companies don’t try to abuse these devices by using them for advertising?

Q: How could advertising companies use them?

Nathan Whitmore: People have started to talk about the concept of dream advertising. They would use the stuff that we know about how to influence the content of dreams to make people have dreams about a specific product. There is some evidence that you can modify the emotional reaction people have to certain stimuli during sleep. One study of people smoking showed you could condition people to have more of an aversion to smoking by associating it with bad odors during sleep. But that kind of thing could also be used for advertising. 

The more nefarious thing that could happen with this is cyberattacks. We have evidence that you can disrupt people’s memories by disturbing their sleep in certain ways. And in theory that could be used for cyberattacks and cyberterrorism. An evil organization could say, “We targeted members of this group with this thing”—that could be very scary and very disruptive, even if it doesn’t work particularly well. 

Q: It’s a means of torture, disrupting sleep.

Nathan Whitmore: Right. And we have this technology that is very good at sensing sleep and people don’t really know when it’s active—as when we’re trying to enhance their memory. But what that also means is people could do very targeted attacks. The targets wouldn’t know anything happened, but their cognitive ability might be degraded. And this could be used to target people who are making critical decisions. It could be interesting to have a panel with regulatory people, cybersecurity people, and neuroscientists to talk about some of these things. 

Q: At the same time, a whole world of people might be sleeping better—amazing to think of how helpful that would be, not only for quality of life but, for instance, productivity and health.

Nathan Whitmore: Right. I think the implications are mostly positive. It could help with diseases, aging, AND also help healthy people with improving memory. 

Q: Beyond the outreach and communication related to cybersecurity you’ve started to think about, is there anything else you’d like to do at the museum, if you had two years? 

Nathan Whitmore: I’ve been thinking about a project that would look at how neuroscience can help with social or societal problems. So I’d want to have talks and panels to look at how we can develop programs to address social issues like violence or police brutality. Can we use cognitive neuroscience approaches on some of these? I’ve really wanted a center or lab to use cognitive neuroscience research to make evidence-based guidelines that would address social issues. Police brutality is a good target, since police have to do some training and monitoring, at least in theory. So that would be area where we can say, Are there interventions we can introduce to mitigate this problem?

Q: Interesting. Police officers are in tricky brain space, where they have to guard against people who might be violent, protect themselves and the public and move fast—but at the same time, there is a danger of overdoing it. 

Nathan Whitmore: Right. That’s the thing that makes it interesting from a cognitive neuroscientist standpoint. There have been laboratory tests looking at this, simulating this—where you have to tell if a person has a cell phone or a gun. Strategies have been developed that might be promising, so I think it’s one area that would be easy to translate. 

Another area in which I’m really interested is resistance to misinformation. Are there cognitive training strategies or insights from cognitive neuroscience to make people more resistant to fake news? Again, I think that’s an interesting area for translation, because we know how the brain processes these things, we have a lot of data on it, so there’s a lot of opportunity for intervention. 

Q: What’s a good example of some data? 

Nathan Whitmore: We know from memory research that the more times we hear something, the more likely we are to believe that it’s true. So that has implications for, say, how you think about vaccine messaging—things like that. 

I’m also interested in: How can we better integrate behavioral economic principles like loss aversion into public messaging? I think people often rely on traditions that have been developed in a particular field. But could some of these behavioral economic principles make people more resistant to misinformation, for example, if we incorporate these things into the lab?

Q: Loss aversion—would that be like, “I didn’t get the vaccine when it would have been most valuable to me so I’m just not going to get it”?

Nathan Whitmore: Right. So COVID is a fascinating example of a number of behavioral economic principles. One thing that went on is delayed discounting, where people were like, “Okay this vaccine might keep me from dying, but that would be at some indefinite point in the future, and it might have some real risks right now.” And they’ll actually weigh the risk that’s closer in time more heavily. We also saw cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning—where a lot of people didn’t want to believe COVID was as bad as it was because that challenged their core beliefs about the competence of authorities. There are also strategies that have been developed in cognitive neuroscience labs to combat these ways of thinking, and it’s interesting to ask: Can we apply these to real-world problems? 

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