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A Christian Perspective on Brain-Computer Interfaces

Tragic stories abound about people who have suffered disabling injuries that have stripped them of their quality of life. But perhaps none is more heartbreaking than the story of Rosemary Johnson. In her 20s, she was a member of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra. Her promising career as a violinist came to an end on a fateful day in 1988. Johnson was involved in a horrific car accident and suffered a devastating head injury that left her in a coma for seven months, robbing her of her speech and movement. No longer able to make music, Johnson was denied the very thing that brought her the most joy in life.

For 27 years, Rosemary Johnson has been trapped in her own head, but that has now changed thanks to technology developed by a team of researchers from Plymouth University (United Kingdom) in collaboration with a team from the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London. Over the course of the last decade, these researchers have been working on the Brain-Computer Music Interface Project.1 Their goal is to record information from a human subject’s brain that can be used to generate music. They hope this technology can be used for therapy and to improve the quality of life for people who have suffered devastating brain injuries or from neuromuscular diseases.

Disabled Musicians Create Music through New Technology

Rosemary Johnson is now part of a musical troupe (called the Paramusical Ensemble) consisting of three other disabled patients and the Bergersen String Quartet. Their first performance was at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in Plymouth on February 27, 2016. Even though their movement is severely restricted, Johnson and her disabled cohorts can direct the members of the Bergersen String Quartet to play music by selecting notes and musical phrases in real time through brain-computer interface software. The disabled musicians wear an electroencephalography cap that noninvasively records electrical activity from their brain. The subjects are trained to use their brain activity to operate software that allows them to arrange musical compositions that, in turn, are displayed on the computer screens of the performing musicians.

Other researchers are also exploring the use of brain-computer interfaces to help brain-damaged people communicate. One group is at the University of California, Berkeley. These researchers have figured out a way to decode neural activity to recognize words that human subjects hear and read, both out loud and silently.2 Up to this point, they have conducted their work with patients suffering from epilepsy. All of their test subjects were undergoing brain surgery to help control epileptic seizures. To pinpoint the problem area of the brain, brain surgeons cut a hole in the patients’ skulls and place electrodes on their brain surfaces to record neural activity over the course of a week. The UC Berkeley team piggybacked on this procedure to record the output of 256 electrodes placed in the auditory area of the frontal lobe as the patients listened to 10 minutes of conversation. They also recorded the output as the patients read words out loud and silently. These researchers developed mathematical models that could correlate neural activity to the words that the patients heard, read, and thought. This exciting breakthrough paves the way for a prosthetic device that one day could help people—who have suffered from brain injuries, strokes, or neurological disorders—communicate their thoughts even if they can no longer speak.

Obviously, these emerging technologies hold exciting promise for people who have suffered devastating injuries that prevent them from communicating. But I also find this work provocative for another reason: it raises fundamental questions about human identity. Is human nature merely a manifestation of physicochemical processes taking place in brain tissue? Or is there a duality to human nature, in which there is a nonphysical aspect to our being? In other words, is the mind distinct from the brain?

A Christian Perspective on Brain-Computer Interface Technology

Even though Rosemary Johnson and other members of the Paramusical Ensemble haven’t been able to communicate for nearly 30 years because of brain damage, they still retained the ability to conceive music. Thanks to the brain-computer interface, that capability is unleashed anew.

If human cognitive ability is merely the manifestation of brain activity, then how is it that Johnson’s damaged brain still has the capacity to compose music? And why would she have such a deep-seated desire to do so? Without the benefit of brain-computer interface studies, it would be tempting to view the communication disability of brain-damaged patients as a loss of cognitive capacity. But this is clearly not the case. Instead, it appears to me that Rosemary Johnson’s identity and musical capabilities have been retained, in spite of the damage to her brain. To put it another way, it appears that her mind is distinct from her brain, consistent with the tenets of Christian theology.

Brain Relates to Mind Like Hardware Relates to Software

The results of the brain-computer musical interface studies can be interpreted through a hardware-software analogy. Accordingly, the brain corresponds to the computer hardware and the mind to the software. For a computer system to operate, both the hardware and software have to be functional and must work together. In like manner, I argue that both the brain and the mind have to be intact and working in combination for a human being to be fully functional and expressive. If computer hardware is damaged, the software can’t execute. Accordingly, if the brain is damaged, the mind becomes trapped, though it may still function perfectly. When the researchers from Plymouth University and the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability produced the brain-computer music interface, they used it to bypass the disabled musicians’ brain damage, creating a conduit for the mind to manifest.

On the other hand, if human capability stems from brain activity alone, then when the hardware is damaged, the lost capabilities should be irretrievable. And yet, they are.

Humans Need to Communicate and Express Themselves

One of the features that defines human beings is our ability to communicate through the use of symbols. In fact, human beings appear to be unique in our symbolic capacity. We alone use discrete symbols that we can combine in a near infinite number of ways to describe the world and alternate possibilities. Spoken and written language, music, art, and even body ornamentation are manifestations of our symbolic capabilities. As a Christian, I view our symbolic capabilities and our desire to communicate with others as a result of God’s image, a quality that all human beings bear.

Human beings have a deep-seated need to communicate symbolically. This need can be seen in the archaeological record. When the first modern humans appeared on Earth, they immediately began to display symbolism. In fact, many archaeological sites are dominated with artistic and musical artifacts. The first modern humans had a compulsive need to produce art and music, activities that consumed precious resources yet had no survival value. Ultimately, it is this need that provides the underlying motivation behind the brain-computer interface projects at Plymouth University and UC Berkeley. The joy that Rosemary Johnson finally experienced when she could make music again exemplifies this desire and resonates with all of us.

  1. Eduardo Miranda, “Plymouth Brain-Computer Music Interfacing Project: From EEG Audio Mixers to Composition Informed by Cognitive Neuroscience,” International Journal of Arts and Technology 3, nos. 2/3 (2010): 154–76, doi:10.1504/IJART.2010.032562.
  2. Brian Pasley et al., “Reconstructing Speech from Human Auditory Cortex,” PLoS Biology 10 (January 2012): e1001251, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001251; Stéphanie Martin et al., “Decoding Spectrotemporal Features of Overt and Covert Speech from the Human Cortex,” Frontiers in Neuroengineering 7 (May 2014), doi:10.3389/fneng.2014.00014.