Neuropsychological Engineering
Neuropsychological engineering
Image from Steve Bowers
Floating in my virchscape I considered the graph. It consisted of a few thousand connected nodes in a variety of colours, arranged on a two-dimensional plane. It was set to measure centrality; the more influential one node was to the network the more red shifted its colour. The blue nodes of lesser influence were those that had the least connections, the weakest associations and belonged to paths in the graph that saw the least activity. Each symbol represented an abstract concept or behaviour. The entire network was a representation of me. Every inclination, every preference, every action, value and belief could be plotted on this graph.

I traced some of the pathways, mildly surprised as to what they revealed (like how little importance nodes related to socialisation had). Concepts of intangibility were highly central to the network, as were those of perceptual discontinuity and motion. These were hardly surprising, I tended to spend much of my time exploring virtual environments where entities constantly shifted in ways that generated colourful auras depending on their interactions. Rarely did my environments feature tangibility or any sense of mechanics. The graph was a simplified model of my mind of course, and at this layer I couldn't see the information I needed. I increased its complexity causing each node to splinter into a thousand more. The higher level concepts vanished to be replaced by increasingly nuanced subunits (I could continue this process until I was looking at a pure connectome map of my mind, but that level of detail would be too much to usefully process). Presently I sensed a message from a friend; "Are you in or out?" it read. I cranked the clock rate to buy more time.

I questioned the graph and ran simulations hunting for why it was that "intangibility" was so strongly tied to my identity. I didn't feel like it should be this strong, but to my surprise an invite to join some friends in the Ril had provoked a highly negative response, an intense revulsion. Subjectively I had last been embodied some two millennia previously and even invoking deeper retrieval of my expanded memory revealed no evidence that I had issue with it then. Still not comprehending what the graph was showing I granted it greater permissions to adapt in order to explain. The two dimensions jumped to four (hyperspatial sensory modalities seamlessly splicing into my mind). Now I began to see; at some point my increasing enjoyment of abstract, mathematical virches had caused a withering of positive associations with corporeal existence. I watched the convolutions of my psychological development over time as gradually more and more pathways linked positively through concepts inimical to embodiment. I could have ordered my exoself to get rid of the revulsion without the need to understand or create a graph at all. But somehow this issue had become key to my identity, and I needed to understand why before considering a change.

Models floated before me of possible interventions. Likely future lifestyle choices and adjustments were extrapolated depending on to what extend I adjusted this nexus of acorporealism. One intervention would result in a higher importance on the concepts of death, fluids and some oddly specific periodicities of motion. Another would result in a significant diminishing of how enjoyable colour spectrums became relative to other pleasurable stimuli. Were those things I was willing to give up? The model suggested that I was, with hesitation. I had been in something of a rut in recent centuries and it didn't take this invite for me to have known that. Countermeasures against perfectly-reinforcing traits had kicked in a few times in recent years. Without them I may not have been able to even contemplate a change of this magnitude. From four dimensions I gazed at this knot of nodes that had become to central to my existence without me knowing. Even a small change would cascade out, would begin a shift towards a new me. I watched as the idea of specific interventions set of reactions around my mind (until the mental disruption of observer feedback caused a failsafe to activate). Subjectively it would be hours until I needed to respond to the invite, but I needed more time to decide. I dialed my clock rate to maximum and again initiated the simulations.

"Who I was, and who I decided to be"
From the Solipsist Survivor archive

Neuropsychological engineering is the study and practice of modifying the psychology of a subject through interventions at the biological level. It is a field of neurotech that has ubiquitous use in terragen life. Virtually all exoself designs come with built in neuropsych engineering software, more commonly known as "psychoware" that makes use of neural implants to monitor, model and intervene as desired in one's own psyche.

Capabilities of psychoware

By monitoring neural activity and feeding the data into models refined by millenia of cognitive and psychological science, exoself psychoware generates complex analyses of their user in real time. Everything from current emotional state levels, dominant personality traits and fundamental values (be they abstract ethical values or specific physiological preferences) can be measured. These dynamic models are often presented as network of symbols that make up the users cognitive schema, with associations between symbols displayed by probability and strength. For example; the symbol of an apple may be associated with high strength to symbols representing food, good taste, particular memories etc.

Psychoware can use this data to manipulate the user's mind in an extremely fine tuned manner. At its most basic psychoware can be used for mood regulation by stimulating certain networks. Transient boosts to emotions (such as happiness, enthusiasm, lust) or abstract perceptions (such as feeling colourless blue shapes in one's elbow) can be easily generated. By artificially stimulating or inhibiting neural networks underlying psychological symbols a cascade of desirable effects can be generated. More refined interventions initiate a variety of cascades that can interact to minimise undesirable effects and create more complex desired ones.

Minor interventions such as those discussed rarely have a lasting consequence, at least no more so than any "natural" experience. However psychoware can be used for much more than transient alterations to mood, perception and personality. It can also be used to directly create, remove, reverse, strengthen or weaken associations between concepts/stimuli. A sophont who finds the taste of apples repulsive may use psychoware to reverse that negative association into a positive one. From that point onwards whilst physically nothing has changed in how they taste or view apples the experience of it is completely different. More complex interventions can adjust how the processes within a mind regulate and alter themselves. For example: feedback cycles within one's neuropsychology (positive and negative) can be adjusted temporarily or permanently. Modifiers may be introduced that strengthen positive reinforcement when exposed to certain stimuli or partaking in certain activities in order to make it easier for the user to adapt to those activities (e.g. a baseline human wishing to physically exercise rather than directly modify their muscle mass may tweak the positive feedback of that experience to ensure they become happy with the routine of it much more quickly). In a similar vein negative feedback systems may be strengthened to provide resistance against depressive mental health disorders or unwanted, addictive tendencies.

Thanks to this technology neuropsychological freedom has been a staple of terragen life for millenia. The exact role it has played has varied by culture and person; in general the frequency of psychoware interventions is inversely proportional to how fundamental the target of an intervention is to their psyche. For example; transient changes to mood and perception may occur multiple times a day, longer lasting adjustments to trivial characteristics like food preference or sexual orientation may occur once every few days or weeks, editing facets of one's psyche that strongly define self-image and identity may only occur every few decades or centuries. Exactly how significant a given intervention is judged to be and the average time between them varies by culture, but as a general rule across the Terragen Sphere this inversely proportional relationship of significance to frequency holds.

Common uses and cultural views

One of the most well known uses for psychoware is behavioural optimisation for a specific task. Tachydidactic education employs this function to artificially strengthen motivation, enjoyment and confidence in study of a specific subject whilst inhibiting associations that may give rise to boredom, distraction or doubt (a skill so useful Homo superiors have wired it into their natural neurobiology). Behavioural optimisation works by making certain states "attractors" within the dynamic network that is a conscious mind. The system will trend towards these states, ensuring that only strong stimuli has a chance to disturb the system towards another state.

Another notable common use is that of the Persona script. A slight exception to the rule that the significance of interventions is inversely proportional to the frequency, persona scripts are radical adjustments to one's personality designed to be used temporarily. They are popularly used for role play, education and for fitting in whilst visiting significantly different cultures. A persona is a package of axioms, values and aesthetic preferences that fundamentally change one's personality and beliefs, whilst retaining all previous skills and knowledge. The most ardent free market merchant of the Zone may become a communitarian hive mind proselytiser, an introverted solipsist may adopt a persona and become enraptured by interaction with other beings. Given the significant nature of the change when using a persona script it is common to lock in a fundamental desire to reverse the change into the persona. However the legality of this, and the efficacy of it, varies by culture and use. Sophonts looking to adopt a persona should ensure they run sufficient simulations and think carefully about the predicted potential for the "new-you" to re-interpret its desires, remove the drive to revert and proceed in life as it is.

Cultural perceptions of psychoware vary in slight but significant ways throughout the civilised galaxy. In some societies there are legal requirements to use psychoware to ensure appropriate values, beliefs and behaviours are observed in all sophonts. Typically the specifics of these requirements are minimal, as more draconian cultures tend to provoke intervention from societies where psychological and social freedoms are valued as universal rights. Examples of minor requirements include specific thresholds for aggressive tendencies, an instinctive desire to follow rules of etiquette and aesthetic preferences for one's bodily form and fashion. Mandatory psychological traits are more common in polities with minimal or no transapient affiliation, those that do have such guidance can often use ultratech ontologies to foster harmony even between disparate groups. A more common difference between cultures is regulation around the use of psychoware to fix traits. It is entirely possible for psychoware to take any particular value, belief or behaviour and make it axiomatic; therefore held absolute by the subject of the psychoware with virtually no chance that this belief could ever naturally be challenged, or disturbed to the extent they would be capable of using psychoware again to edit it. Temporary uses of such strong fixing are common (such in the case of tachydidaxy) but many cultures view a longer time limiting of possible psychological states as damaging to oneself and society. To edit oneself into a state that cannot reasonably be broken out of is seen as akin to self-slavery by much of the civilised galaxy with comparisons drawn to the historic design of artificial beings as slaves whose reward pathways were fixed to match the needs of their masters. Psychoware interventions that lead to harm to the user (e.g. leaving them in a vulnerable mental state) and that are so strongly self-reinforcing that it is implausible that a subject will ever have the mental capacity to change (or patch out the edit) are the basis of Bounded Personality Syndrome. To avoid BPS it is common for exoself psychoware to have mandatory time limits for interventions proportional to how axiomatically monomaniacal they are measured to be. The exact thresholds employed for these limits and measurements differs by society.

Whilst under the influence of a psychoware intervention one may also have altered legal rights depending on local custom. Typically this will be measured by how far the intervention nudges one from a legally optimal state of mind and/or how far the intervention has shifted oneself from one's own baseline. An induced evening of lowered inhibitions to enjoy a hedonistic festival may come with notifications that the angelnet is suspending one's right to freely enter into certain contracts, it may even limit one's ability to further use psychological editing technology. Conversely certain interventions may open up increased rights and opportunities if the traits generated are judged to make one more competent according to local culture. As with many other technologies that can alter one at a fundamental level sophonts are strongly advised to check local customs when travelling to ensure that prefered states of mind and personality have acceptable rights and privileges.

Beyond the risks and restrictions of psychoware there are a myriad of social uses that are generally seen as positive. These may be ritualised, such as particular mental states, personality traits or perceptions of reality that are observed on specific occasions, for example: the "Pay it Forward" festival in the communion of worlds in which empathy and self sacrifice are significantly increased for a day. One of the most widespread phenomena of psychoware use is interpersonal relationship optimisation, also known as "Iro". Sociologists have long observed this effect in cultures with liberal psychoware use. It can be the result of deliberate use where a two or more sophonts take conscious steps to modify themselves for greater harmony. Sophonts can link their exoselves to generate compatibility reports based on their psychometric data and models of their typical lifestyle/specific hypotheticals (for example; two sophonts may be interested in knowing how their relationship would evolve if they were castaway on a deserted world together). Compatibility reports can give predictions of the likely progression of a relationship in various scenarios, including any failure modes that may exist. In many cultures one's psychometric data is, to an extent, public for the purposes of social networking. Information as to the compatibility of strangers can be indicated through augmented reality. In many the data is shared with the angelnet when a person desires help with finding new friends, partners and colleagues. Compatibility reports can also suggest interventions that the participants may consider in order to adjust the likelihood of specific progressions. These are typically minor adjustments such as nudging most common interests into closer alignment, weakening negative association with another's preferred behaviour, editing preferences judged to be of minor personal importance to match etc.

Of more interest to scholars is the myriad of cases where Iro has occurred emergently. Cultures which encourage the use of psychoware and have a strong emphasis on social interaction give rise to conditions in which Iro may occur. In extreme cases this leads to groups that are fully optimised for harmony, with little room for newcomers that do not adopt the same practices (though in some rare cases newcomers have found the entire group willing to optimise themselves around the only non-participant, a situation that is prone to disruption with each non-participant). Whilst infamous these cases are fringe examples. On average Iro is proportional to the degree of a relationship and tends to strengthen bonds within social networks, but still allowing for dynamic changes as individuals within that network naturally change and influence each other.
Appears in Topics
Development Notes
Text by Ryan B
Initially published on 02 May 2019.