Mind Control

This whole experience was insane. But also really empowering.

We are in the process of revamping my video series, Elise Tries, now that I am US-based and able to work in similar time zones and in the same physical space as the rest of the video team. What we have designed is a dive into a time marker in the future — 2050 — which means we’re essentially doing “Elise Tries: The Future.”

Last week we went to Houston to get a look at the future of the human body and the quest to eliminate disability-as-we-know-it.

With Atilla, one of the researchers at UH, and the REX exoskeleton, which I later powered with my BRAIN

One of the most active spheres for helping augment human capabilities is in robotically-assisted, or “bionic”, limbs. And the latest work in this field is brain-machine interfaces, or mind-control of the limbs. Eventually this invites in all sorts of questions about where man ends and where humans begin, which we’ll get into in reporting.

But first, we have to try stuff! NPR photographers Mito (from New York) and Nick (from DC) joined me at the University of Houston where we visited the lab of Dr. Jose Contreras-Vidal, who is now getting into pediatric exoskeletons, so we also met a 9-year-old boy with spina bifida who is hoping to learn how to use one of these badass exoskeletons. (They are $150,000 each so they really require a lot of grant money and research approval before subjects can join the study.)

The researchers had lots of rules for me so my brain could work unimpeded: Don’t get sloshed, get a good night’s sleep, keep the caffeine to a minimum and absolutely no energy drinks! (This reminded me of the time my running buddy Eddie decided he would drink a 5-hour Energy right before a marathon because he was like, this is gonna be about five hours so it will wear off just in time.)

Then I got measured for the exoskeleton, which required the researchers laying me down and feeling around my pelvis for my hip bones and leg sockets (I hope this part doesn’t make the final video cut), tried walking in it while manually controlled, and then I got into the COOLEST CAP EVER. The cap had 64 sensors connected to wires to read different parts of my brain, and then we could look at a monitor to see the expressions of my brain waves from each sensor. When I blinked, all the squigglies (think an EKG) zig-zagged, etc. It wasn’t until the cap was on and I was all connected to the system that I could get back into the legs and learn to make it move and stop with my brain.

After a few tries, I finally got it to happen. The craziest thing about it was how Atilla the researcher could watch the brain wave monitor and tell me IN ADVANCE that my brain was about to get to the point where I’d stop the robot, even when the robot was still moving. It’s much like how, if you’re in labor, doctors can watch a contraction monitor and see your contractions if you can’t feel them because your bottom half is under anesthesia. (I cannot speak from experience on the contraction thing because I refused to take any drugs and felt EVERY. DAMN. THING.)

Anyway I’m really glad I heeded their advice and didn’t get drunk the night before, because this would have been exceedingly difficult to do while hungover. The next day I rewarded my brain with a proper Texas chicken fried steak. Boy oh boy, do I miss “chicken fried steak Thursdays” at the Texas Capitol.

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