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Positive Psychology Needs to Find a Seat at the Technology Table

By on September 12, 2014 – 12:36 pm  11 Comments

Daniel G. Faggella, MAPP 2012, is a national martial arts champion, a college speaker, and author. His interests lie in the enhancement of human experience and the reaches of sentient potential. He interviews philosophers, psychologists, and technology experts on his aptly named blog: SentientPotential.com. Full bio pending.

Daniel's articles are here.



Positive psychology’s founder, Dr. Martin Seligman, has issued a moon-shot challenge to have 51% of the human population flourishing psychologically by 2051. It’s an audacious goal intended to unite many forces to make a grand impact on the whole of humanity.

Along the march to this goal, technology has been seen as a useful aid. Dozens of new applications (apps) help people integrate habits of well-being into daily life. Seligman himself addresses technology’s important influence on human fulfillment in his 2004 TED talk on the state of positive psychology.

I argue that technology is more than an aid to positive psychology’s efforts because it can have a direct influence on the nature of happiness and well-being itself. Technology can augment the human psyche. It is a force that the positive psychology community cannot afford to ignore.

Technology Opens Up New Vistas of Well-being

While smartphones or the internet might indirectly influence happiness by spreading knowledge or providing real-time feedback, future brain-machine interface technologies will be able to induce, enhance, and even extend the sentient experience of happiness. They can also augment the cognitive capacity to experience fulfillment or meaning in a deep and real way. In other words, everything that comprises Seligman’s notions of the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life will be malleable by the technologies of the coming decades.

Positive psychology takes psychology beyond fixing people towards developing the further reaches of human potential. While sharing that goal, I argue that technology will make this exact same transition from removing obstacles that obstruct human well-being toward permanently enhancing our affective experience and taking us beyond any notions of well-being that we have today.

The future intersection of technology and psychology could have an astronomical ethical impact. Martin Seligman uses the language “tonnage of human happiness” to measure the impact of positive psychology. Technology which may directly alter the human emotional state beyond the present emotional range would seem to be the most ethically relevant developments of all time. We are moving toward a world where we can manually move that needle itself, as opposed to indirectly impacting emotions through other forces and conditions.

As a student of Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, as an extension student at MIT, and as a writer and speaker on the intersection of technology and psychology, my aim is to extend positive psychology’s influence into the larger conversations on human well-being where it is most desperately needed to guide the technological developments that will mold the future of consciousness.

Thus far, most of technology’s influence on human well-being has been indirect. The happiness app on our smartphones does not literally make us happy any more than the microwave on our counter does. The app, like the microwave, allows us to attain some end (learn about fulfillment, calibrate habits, or heat up frozen vegetables) in a convenient way, which we hope will be conducive to happiness.

I posit that technologies of the future will, in contrast, directly mold consciousness itself along with all conceivable constituents of fulfillment. I argue that positive psychology, the study of human well-being itself, should be involved in defining and assessing these new frontiers of technology and psychology.

Already Existing Technological Breakthroughs

Let’s look at some technological breakthroughs that have already occurred.

In 2004, Deanna Cole-Benjamin of Kingston, Ontario bit down hard as holes were drilled into her skull, and electrodes placed in what is know as “area 25” of her brain. Nothing else had worked for her severe and persistent depression, no drugs, no psychotherapies, no electroshock therapies. She hoped that deep brain stimulation would finally help. It did, and for many other depression sufferers, this treatment has transformed their quality of life.

For well over a decade, Oxford philosophers Davis Pearce and Nick Bostrom have spoken and written about the further reaches of what happiness might be accessed with an augmented human mind. Is it rational to assume that such brain augmentation will be a commonplace and highly desired surgery once this procedure of increasing subjective well-being can be performed with acceptable side effects? To answer this question, I might point out that the top-selling drug in America is Abilify, an anti-depressant with $6.46B in sales in 2013 alone. It could be argued that all of our actions are geared toward enhancing our positive emotions, engagement, or meaning. When one or more of these is available in a bottle or via a surgery, will society not jump on it?

In 2005, Cathy Hutchinson went under the knife for an even more experimental procedure at BrainGate. Through a hole bored into her skull, Cathy had a baby aspirin-sized sensor implanted in her motor cortex, allowing her to move a robotic arm and other devices with thought alone. She had been completely paralyzed for over 10 years and was willing to do anything to regain some degree of the control, volition, and communication she had enjoyed before she was paralyzed by a stroke. Her amazing, dextrous control of a robotic arm using her thoughts alone was hailed as one of the most astounding breakthroughs in neuroscience.

If Cathy is able to control a fully-functional robotic body in the future, would it be limited in the way that the human body is now? It would probably not tire out the way our muscles do. It would probably be strong enough to force her out of a dangerous situation such as the twisted metal of a car wreck. It is likely that other people would want the same kind of enhanced body. At some point, not only the paralyzed would be interested in technology’s applications. The same goes for Cathy’s plugged in ability to move a computer cursor or reply to emails. When the technology becomes safe and effective, what modern knowledge worker could afford not to control devices with thought alone? Enhanced financial traders might control and monitor a dozen screens without the limitations of keyboards and mouse. Workers of all types will be able to take multitasking to entirely new levels. Could un-enhanced humans then have any role of importance in the workplace?

Since the 1970’s, humans have been bypassing their sensory organs to convey sensory input directly to the nerves and brain, starting most prominently with the cochlear implant. More recently, we’ve seen bionic eyes bypassing damaged or degenerated cornea. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne, a hand amputee was fitted with a prosthetic arm connected to electrodes implanted in the nerves that once controlled his hand. The device was able to send sensory signals to the man’s brain through the prosthetic device, allowing him to grasp and distinguish between soft, hard, round and angular objects even when blindfolded.

The future, however, will not be limited to attaining vision as usual, hearing as usual, or other senses and abilities as usual. Just as positive psychology aims to go beyond the absence of mental illness, and humanity aims to go beyond its little blue planet, we will push beyond our present senses and mental capacity once technology allows for it. Even now cognitive implants are being developed to help people with Alzheimer’s disease. There is already talk about enhancing regular human memory (Where did I leave my keys, again?). Similarly, technology to restore senses may provide the ability to go beyond present senses. For over a decade there’s been talk of a trans-human transition beyond biological limitations.

Surprising Factors

Three factors may surprise you about the enhancement stories above.

  1. That human beings are getting wires and sensors jammed into their skulls in the first place
  2. That these implanted devices have allowed for astounding increases in the functioning of the patients
  3. That even Dianna’s and Cathy’s seemingly futuristic procedures are hardly breaking news, now being nearly a decade old.

These technologies do not indirectly influence well-being via some outside factor that may hold sway over happiness. These technologies wield direct influence over sentience itself and directly recreate human potential and the human experience.

Role of Positive Psychology in This Future

So what can positive psychology do now? Though awareness is useful, action is needed. The technologies developing now will mold, enhance, and possibly redefine consciousness and well-being.

If increasing all human well-being is the metric of success we’d like to impact, and if technology can be a conduit to engagement, meaning, and positive emotion, then it would seem that we’d want to be part of the committee that determines the direction and uses of technology that can alter sentience itself in the following ways:

  1. Positive psychology can help other disciplines such as cognitive science, neuroscience, and machine learning define the horizons for research that could yield the most important findings for human happiness. Envisioning these horizons can have a massive impact on the end results.
     
  2. Positive psychology can help to assess the impact and implications of brain-machine interface and neuroscience studies.

Having a positive psychologist in the room when technologies are being developed to alter emotion or mental conditions is important for any research that aims to improve well-being. What if the developments in cognitive enhancement acted wholly without a strong grounding in what is known to be conducive to human happiness? I’d argue that if positive psychology waits until invasive brain-machine interface procedures are commonplace before it gets involved, it will be too late to make an appropriate contribution.

For example, as more and more immersive virtual reality experiences are developed to facilitate gaming, hold meetings, or interact with loved ones thousands of miles away, shouldn’t positive psychologists help study the ways these developments impact relationships and well-being?

As non-invasive brain-machine interface (EEG) caps and open-source EEG-reading software allow us to tie brain activity to emotions and control our devices with thought, might positive psychology itself be informed by these new findings?

When experiments with memory and perception make it possible to enhance human memory, or even selectively remove or implant memories, will it not be critical to monitor both their short-term and long-term effects on human well-being?

As more and more procedures are developed to directly impact human emotion, such as more refined brain stimulation, optogenetics, and smarter drugs, doesn’t it make sense that the science of positive psychology would inform direct attempts to improve well-being?

Technology is Not Just a Conduit

Technology isn’t simply a conduit for spreading positive psychology. It will be one force that reshapes and augments our very notions of human experience and of well-being itself. Positive psychologists cannot afford to be technological bystanders if we want 51% of the human population to flourish by 2051. We will have to be part of those important conversations at the intersection of technology and psychology.

We need to work toward the inclusion of positive psychology in this transition, lest we have no place for the science of happiness at the table of tomorrow.
 


 
References

Chamberlin, J. (2011). Flourish 2051: Martin E.P. Seligman’s new initiative calls for a global boost in well-being by 2051. American Psychological Association Monitor.

Choi, C. Q. (2014). Prosthetic Hand Lets Wearer Feel Again. TXCHNOLOGIST.

Dobbs, D. (2006). A depression switch?. New York Times. Article about Deanna Cole-Benjamin.

Frank, L. (2013). How to Make a Cognitive Neuroprosthetic. MIT Technology Review.

Guest author (2012). Would you swap a healthy eye for a bionic one with additional functionality? Wired Ideas Bank.

Lomena, A. (2007). Bostrom and Pearce interviewed by Cronopis.

Maddox, L. (2014). If you want a better, happier life, here are 10 apps that could help. The Guardian.

Pelly, S. (2012). Paralyzed woman uses mind-control technology to operate robotic arm. CBS Evening News.

Petri, A. (2013). MIT scientists implant memory in mouse brain. Washington Post.

Ramirez, S. & Liu, X. (2013). How to manually change a memory. TEDX Talk.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). On positive psychology. TED talk.

Sharon, T. (2013). Human Nature in an Age of Biotechnology: The Case for Mediated Posthumanism (Philosophy of Engineering and Technology). Springer.

Cochlear implant history.

Michigan man among first in US to receive ‘bionic eye’. Fox News.

Images

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Moon landing courtesy of Sunciti _ Sundaram’s Images + Messages
Microwave & world courtesy of Darron Birgenheier
Deep brain stimulation courtesy of Ryan Somma
Child with Cochlear Implant courtesy of Chris & Shelley Mallinson

Sparklers from Unsplash courtesy of Kelley Bozarth

11 Comments »

  • Marcus Roth says:

    I would go so far as to directly link Positive Psychologists and Neuroscientists; the former being a mindset that I would suspect most nueroenginners attempt to live and work by while the later being their profession. Just as current technology is referenced to indirectly influence happiness, I believe a case could be made that neurosciencts are indirectly influencing the propagation of Positive Psychology theory. The people actually in labs creating BMIs’ are directly expressing the ideals of a Positive Psychologist. They are attempting to aid in the achievement of a satisfactory life through the skills they posses.

    I suppose I am left with a philosophical question: Can someone truly represent a cause without making the conscious decision? As it is very possible that an inventor of a BMI or any other cognitive tech may simply just be “doing his job” or “just treating the illness”.

    To extrapolate, I would suspect that the author is truly calling for conscious and knowing Positive Physiologists to be “at the table” (whatever their profession) which will allow for a brighter future that can help everyone. As opposed to inventors and investors at a table merely looking to treat an illness. I suspect it is that traditional way of thinking that causes the general populous to not hear about these incredible feats of science.

  • Edmund John says:

    Well articulated article summarizing the future of humanity aided by technology as it applies to human potential.

    One question would be: when will the incentives for entrepreneurs shift from building the SLOWMO (social, location, mobile) apps – for smartphones to being able to build software for the human brain.

    As of today, it appears much of this technology is in research phase and is relegated to governments and scientists. When it begins to go mainstream and becomes accessible for business applications that are profitable and thus sustainable with private funding, that will be an exciting day indeed. That day will be here soon.

  • Hi Marcus, thanks for the comment here. These are interesting points. I think that it’s perfectly possible for researchers / others to further human happiness without having that as their direct aim per say. However, it would seem that the best likelihood of yielding human happiness (or influencing the “tonnage” of human happiness) would be resulted in holding this as the chief aim.

    I think that it is reasonable to suppose that a BMI device may be designed to simply “treat an illness” (without direct mention to happiness), but that any device which tinkers with the human mind should be tested rigorously with long-term impacts on well-being in mind… and that although Positive Psych isn’t necessarily the only branch of psych to weigh in on that matter… it sure would see in line with the 2051 goal as much as anything else.

    Best,
    – Daniel

  • Lauren says:

    A very interesting and poignant read. One question that looms in mind – how do you effectively steer and sustain the development of technology toward proliferating positive human experience on a complex, global level? Surely not everyone with access to mind control will use it in positive ways – how might this be mitigated or controlled? And what set of global values do we consider when making such decisions? I’m curious as to how, in a technologically-enhanced humanity, the idea of free will play against some form of “controlled enhancement” that allows for a “more positive” and expansive experience; is this necessary to hedge the threat of annihilation of most or all humans by some sects of society that do not place great value on human life?

  • Jason Rouslin says:

    Daniel,

    Thanks for writing. Interesting article, that covers a few topics that peak my interest. I think the intersection of technology and positive psychology is well under way, and that 2051 statistic could very well be the case.

    One thing that stuck out to me was “At some point, not only the paralyzed would be interested in technology’s applications”. It’s fascinating what technology has already brought us just in the last few years. For me personally and professionally, I like to focus on the products and subsequently the companies, that can/could/ and will shape the future. Here’s one to take a peak at. “Rewalk Robotics” has created, “The ReWalk™” exoskeleton suit. It uses patented technology with motorized legs that power knee and hip movement. Battery-powered for all-day use, ReWalk is controlled by on-board computers and motion sensors, restoring self-initiated walking without needing tethers or switches to begin stepping. ReWalk controls movement using subtle changes in center of gravity, mimics the natural gait pattern of the legs similar to that of an able-bodied person and provides functional walking speed. A forward tilt of the upper body is sensed by the system, which triggers the first step”. (http://rewalk.com/technology/)

    Taking the above technology/product and applying it to the question/thought Marcus brought up “As it is very possible that an inventor of a BMI or any other cognitive tech may simply just be “doing his job” or “just treating the illness”, in this case the may be doing his or her job, or treating the illness, but what there also doing is altering the life of an individual/s improving ones psychology, at least one would think, so it’s a cross relationship between doing ones job and the psychology of humans.

    I hope to see more products like the one describe above, and can only imagine there already out there.

  • Lauren, glad to hear from you here. I believe that these issues around policy and legality in tinkering with consciousness will be massively important, and will necessarily have to be international. I believe that there must be agreements as to the direction of research and the safe trajectory of research initiatives. It’s no easy task.

    Jason, I agree that Seligman’s aim has a shot. Per the ReWalk project, it seems clear that a lot of the initial research in BMI will in fact be oriented around this kind of amelioration of less-than-desirable conditions, but as you’d mentioned – where does a researchers work start to become something else / something more? The lines are grey, but I think they lively and educated debate is the healthiest way to navigate this space. Better sooner than later.

  • Renee says:

    Hey Dan,

    Great piece. There is no denying incredible strides and improvement to quality of life have been made with the technology already existing and forthcoming. This line stuck with me “Since the 1970’s, humans have been bypassing their sensory organs to convey sensory input directly to the nerves and brain.”

    I think back on my life and wonder how my current meaning, pleasure, and engagement would be different if my past experiences with depression were bypassed. I believe I’ve experienced significant post-traumatic growth after several life challenges, but I wonder, what if I didn’t have to go through those challenges? Would I be better off today?

    I’m in no way saying the research should be halted (I’m also not naive to believe once in motion it ever could be). I’m not saying suffering is a necessary ingredient for growth and well-being. I’m not saying people in pain or lacking for something they desire to improve their life be denied this privilege. I’m just expressing aloud a thought. What if could implant something in every human (maybe even in utero) and they good live the good life immediately? What would that look like? Do we want that?

    Again, thanks for provoking lots of thoughts. 🙂 Renee

  • Renee, a very interesting point indeed. I agree, post-traumatic growth is a wondrous thing (when it occurs instead of evil cousin, post-traumatic stress). I there is much “richness” in the human experience that might be lost were we all to live in an kind of “bland bliss.”

    However, augmentation doesn’t imply bland bliss, necessarily. In fact, because most people would feel an aversion to this kind of existence (at least in their idea of such a state), I think we’ll be talking about more RICHNESS, not just more PLEASURE in conscious experience.

    The questions that arise from augmenting sentience might be:
    – Can we bypass “trauma” to experience that same growth?
    – If apes can’t experience humor / poetry / high literature / etc…, then what are we as humans missing that we could “expand” to experience?
    – How could we keep ourselves from “capping out” our present fulfillment – so that we might access higher orders of bliss / well-being / fulfillment / etc..?

    I’ve written on this topic before here at PPN (http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/daniel-faggella/2013031925660), which might be interesting in exploring these ideas. All the best,

    – Daniel

  • Diane says:

    Clearly the field of positive psychology should be entrusted with the job of guiding this technology to the betterment of humankind. The augmentation potential is well described in this article, but I’m concerned that without the influence of our positive psych experts, there’s also the possibility of some very scary outcomes. We need stewards of what is good for the human race.

  • Nicole T says:

    Dan-

    I definitely appreciate your optimism. The ability to willfully choose to push your own needle, your own limits, can and should be utterly amazing.

    But I have to agree with the reservations about control… In trying to generate a society that is both happy and good enough to correctly use this technology, who is making those ethical calls, and should they be? What if their ethical call conflicts with a person’s self-direction, for good or ill? The question might boil down to the right of personhood, and eventually, what personhood even means.

    To draw an example from the current media, the novel The Giver (and in a way, the movie, which is much more heavily handed) shows the extreme of what a society centered around happiness and wellbeing could resort to.

    While I hardly hold that dystopia lies in our future, those choices do. And in those choices, humanity never has been and may never be a single voice about anything.

  • Nicole:

    I agree with your statements, particularly: “While I hardly hold that dystopia lies in our future, those choices do.”

    It will be tremendously difficult to set terms and policies on these technologies, much harder – I’d guess – than nuclear bombs or other technologies that are overtly destructive. Informed people, open minds, and a well intended / united effort are about as good a “swing” as I think we have… how to take that swing is another story.

    Thanks for your thoughts as well – I will have to check out “The Giver”!
    – Daniel

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