A few months ago, I read an article that immediately reminded me [and many other geeks] of a very famous scene within the very famous movie “The Matrix”. There is a point early on in the first movie where the lead character, Neo, is “learning” a whole set of new skills. I place the term “learning” in quotes, because the new skills he is acquiring are being directly fed into his nervous system through a portal on the back of his head.
After this new knowledge has been transferred, Neo declares “I know Kung Fu”. In other words, he has acquired a new physical ability that usually takes years if not decades to master. Physiologically, in order to become expert at a physical art (like the martial arts or playing an instrument) a person also needs to develop something called “muscle memory”.
Muscle memory is a physiological feature of our bodies that allows us to become better and better at tasks, the more we repeat them. The reason that we improve with practice is because of local neural circuits that can handle a whole series of tasks with far less involvement of our frontal lobes in our brains.
Take for example the classic situation I mentioned above, of trying to learn to play an instrument. When one begins to practice, he or she spends a great deal of time looking at the instrument and figuring out where to place one’s fingers. Then, each note or chord has to be individually practiced until it becomes what is often called “second nature”.
What is actually happening in this process is that the details of finger positioning and movement are being “wired into” the person’s spinal cord. Once this neural encoding happens, the brain no longer needs to “think” about every movement of the hand. Instead, the brain can simply issue an order that is effectively “play the note C”, and the spinal cord will disseminate the detailed commands to all of the muscles of the arms and hands. In fact, the amount of encoding at the level of the spinal cord is even more advanced than simple or singular musical notes. When one watches a concert pianist, it is simply impossible for the brain to process all of the notes to be played and then to issue the individual commands to all of the fingers. The brain becomes a relatively removed overseer that probably handles no more than the most basic messages such as “play the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth Symphony”.
As it turns out, developing muscle memory does not require conscious effort on the part of the individual. As described in the article I linked to above, a specialized glove can effectively teach a person’s nervous system directly, without needing to involve the brain. The “Mobile Music Touch glove” works by activating tiny vibration motors over the fingers. Based on the description in the linked article, the author, who had never studied piano, was able to play a series of 61 notes by NOT thinking and simply allowing his fingers to do the work.
By the way, just this one observation is incredibly important in terms of understanding how our nervous system works. One could easily think that muscle memory derives from signals from the brain that train the spinal cord to do what is necessary in order to play piano. In other words, the training must be “internal” to the body, coming from the brain to the nerves in the spinal cord. What this glove proves is that our brains can be bypassed entirely and our nervous system can directly be manipulated. In fact, as the author notes, he needed to ignore conscious commands to his hand and just allow his hand to do what it “knew” to do on its own.
What is also fascinating is that this entire process only took two hours. This shows how incredibly malleable our nervous systems continue to be, even later in to life. It definitely makes one wonder if it is possible to stimulate new types of nerve remodeling in the brain, which could be used to combat diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The researchers behind this glove have found that it can help people who have suffered spinal cord injuries. Assisting this group of individuals has become a very hot topic of late, especially with the very public offering of the Re-Walk technology (that I have discussed in previous blog posts). Using the Re-Walk exoskeleton, people who had been paralyzed for years were suddenly able to stand and walk and face their loved ones. Needless to say, this was a very emotional experience for these injured individuals and their families.
Understandably, this success sparked a tremendous interest in exoskeletons for a whole variety of other uses, whether for the general public, in the workplace or in the military. In terms of the “mobile glove”, paralyzed individuals who used the the glove, actually regained some sensation and dexterity in their hands. Based on what I discussed above about muscle memory, perhaps it could be possible to retrain a limb to reach a significant level of functionality, even though the connection from the brain to the spinal cord had been severely damaged.
I want to take a moment and actually discuss a practical issue that applies to this device as well as to effectively every other new technology that comes along.
What may be unfortunate about this glove device is that its market for sales might be too limited. For such devices to be a huge financial success, they generally need to be applicable to the average person. Will people pay, say $300, for a glove that lets them learn how to play an instrument while they sleep? Will people pay $200 for such a glove? If these gloves do not fly off the shelves in regular stores, and if they become suited only for those with neurological conditions, the business market might not be big enough to support the venture.
It is a sad reality that if the developers of new drugs and medical devices do not make sufficient money from the endeavor, the projects will be abandoned. No matter how brilliant and useful a new technology is, it must have mass appeal to some large group of users in order to make it out of the research lab. Alternatively, if an item has a small audience, it must then be legitimate to charge a large amount of money per unit, in order to sustain the project. As a physician and simply as a human being, I pray that any person who could benefit from such a technology, should have access to it. My concern is that harsh business factors may get in the way.
Such is the story for an endless number of new technology ventures. They not only have to be technically successful, i.e. do what they are meant to do, but they also need to generate a (significant) profit. It is always nice to dream and even create a device that could help the world. But for the inventors and/or developers, they need a successful business model.
Another option is to open source the design specifications of the glove. This would allow other interests, large and small, to take this technology and run with it. With the right entrepreneurial mind, this could be the way to success. But once a project’s detailed plans are open sourced, it becomes much more difficult for the original developers/company to recoup any investment.
I apologize for ending this blog post on somewhat of a down note. But it is important to remember that whenever I discuss technologies, someone has to foot the bill. I have seen so many brilliant ideas fade away simply because no one with money believed in them. I know that personally, if I had the funds, I would invest in certain ideas that others have considered pointless. This dynamic of matching brilliant ideas with the funds to support them will decide, in many ways, the future of the technologies we experience. My hope is that we will find a way to share the “wealth” of brilliant ideas with everyone who could benefit from them.
Thanks for listening