January 03, 2024

Natasha Vita-More on transhumanism, brain health, increasing neuroplasticity, and beneficial AGI (AC Ep25)

“We can see AI as a tool that will benefit us and give us warmth, insight, and light. If we use the metaphor that fire gave us light and warmth and helped guide us, AI can do the same, and we don’t have to be so afraid of it and halt it.”

– Natasha Vita-More

Robert Scoble
About Natasha Vita-More

Natasha Vita-More is a professor, author, scientist, innovator, and Executive Director of Humanity+. She is recognized as a pioneer of the transhumanist movement, publishing a manifesto in 1983, with her scientific work including advances in cryobiology and innovations in body-brain engineering. She holds a Ph.D and two Masters and has lectured at universities including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Cambridge. Natasha has appeared in over 24 televised films and documentarities about humanity’s future and is a frequent keynote speaker on topics including longevity and human enhancement.

What you will learn

  • Transhumanism, using technology for human betterment (03:08)
  • Advancing humanity beyond innovation to emotional and psychological growth (06:07)
  • Addressing cognitive biases through neuroplasticity for societal and self-awareness (08:22)
  • Acknowledging resistance to change in evolving thought and social adaptation (11:30)
  • Fostering brain health by creating new habits and pathways for better well-being (12:19)
  • Boosting brain health through varied, challenging mental activities (15:39)
  • Adult Neurogenesis: New neuron growth in adults, shaped by lifestyle and social factors (16:32)
  • Influencing personal development through mindful self-talk, choosing the right social circle (18:10)
  • Advancing depression treatment with neuroscience and brain stimulation techniques (21:27)
  • Investigating novel dementia therapies and the early stages of brain uploading and AI memory integration (23:18)
  • Prioritizing brain health and stress management (26:04)
  • Utilizing Beneficial AGI and overcoming fear to embrace AI as a positive tool in human progress (29:34)
  • Using AI and AGI to improve fairness, with a cautious approach in technological development (33:17)

Episode Resources


Ross Dawson: Natasha, it’s a delight to have you on the show. 

Natasha Vita-More: Thank you, I’m very pleased to be here.

Ross: You evolved amongst many, many other things in transhumanism, and this is something that people probably have some idea of but perhaps not an accurate idea. I’d love to hear how you frame transhumanism.

Natasha: I frame transhumanism as a philosophy which developed and grew into a world movement, and it sets the pace for the potential of emerging technologies and evidence-based science to help improve the human condition, which for the largest part is often sequestered in disease, discomfort, inequalities, and conflict. A lot of that conflict is due largely to emotions, let’s say the reptilian brain, the fight or flight, religious wars, political determinations, and social unrest. That’s a very big part of why the human condition is something to talk about, and why transhumanism offers a different or a new approach to these things, and that we can be better people, we can do better in the world.

The aim is to help with that through, for example, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and biomedical therapies to help with disease, to be better informed about information that’s not biased or prejudiced, and to be more analytical, better thinkers about the world around us, more conscious and aware, and so on and so forth. That’s the real goal behind transhumanism.

The benefits of that are certainly large, and of course, there are consequences to any particular technological group or a psychological group…tools or methodologies that might alter or change who we are, and that’s where the rub is. Oftentimes, Transhumanism is misunderstood as wanting to control humanity or to have an elitist stance, etc., which is untrue. There’s no sign of that within the transhumanist philosophy itself or in the movement. Of course, individuals will practice what they want as they do, which has affected transhumanism. The aim is to correct that as best we can.

Ross: The “trans” suggests beyond what it has been to be human, pointing to essentially evolution or transcendence of what we have been before into some new life form, potentially.

Natasha: Yes, and we could look at it that way more metaphorically. If we look at all the wars, strife, and suffering that humanity has gone through, while at the same time being extraordinarily innovative, applying intelligent skills to problem-solving and overcoming problems, our species has worked very hard at that for eons. Look who we are today compared to where we were quite some time ago. We can see the improvements. But one of the falterings there is there has been little progress in the emotionality or the psychology of the human. Thus, we have things like narcissism, egocentricities, and biases – people thinking others who are doing something are thinking something that they’re not. It’s called cognitive bias where we put onto other people what we’re afraid of, and those cognitive biases are pretty much growing by leaps and bounds today all over in social media, in politics, and the religious wars.

It’s about time we overcame that. It sounds so silly, but John Lennon was right. Love is the answer. I think the diversity in the world needs to be respected and regarded in a way that puts an end to this. I wish that the people on our beautiful planet who are tired of this would just stand up and say enough is enough, stop this nonsense. But then it becomes more complex than that. Unless you’re there in the middle of it, you don’t understand it.

Ross: I’d love to dig into the cognitive biases. As you say, our brains are wonderful in many ways, and flawed in some ways, and we are built-in with all sorts of cognitive biases, which sometimes we self-amplify. What tools, mechanisms, or approaches that we have today or which are apparent today for us to move beyond or to improve our cognitive biases

Natasha: First, just explain to your audience that cognitive biases describe the tendency for people’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences to affect their judgment. It’s like having a veil over reality, that reality is interpreted through people’s experiences, or what they think of something, or how they have been trained to think about something, or even by groupthink. Certain types of hysteria like crowd hysteria, and so forth. The way to overcome our biases, it’s not easy, it’s a lot of work. We have to develop a respect for neuroplasticity; that’s the main thrust of my views and in my talks on work on brain health.

We know that the diseases of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, brain traumas, and other brain diseases are on the growth. They’re upswing, unfortunately, and by 2050, the number of people with dementia will increase. It will triple to say 152 million people by 2050, and that’s pretty concerning. That means one in every four of us will have some type of dementia, and early-onset Alzheimer’s is on the rise. One way to detect that is looking to see if we have the genes that cause Alzheimer’s, to have brain scans, and to be aware of our cognitive processes. I look at what we can do to overcome cognitive biases in that regard because I find it to be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome today.

This is not only in transhumanism but across all sectors of beliefs and practices in society. Neuroplasticity can be exercised by training ourselves to do something differently than we’ve done before. But first, to do that, it’s important to become aware of what we’re doing, and that type of introspection is often missing because it’s obfuscated by biases.

Ross: You mentioned brain health; that’s a deep and rich topic, but I would love to touch on what are the ways in which we can today, or emerging where we can increase the health of our brains. The heart of being able to amplify our cognition is to have healthy brains, which can be in a position to think well.

Natasha: No, you’re correct, and thank you for saying that because it sounds all sexy and nice to talk about how different therapies will increase and amplify the brain and the future of AI, integration with computers, and human-computer interaction and enhancement, I love those topics to be sure, but it’s really important to get to the beast in the belly of it, and that is that most of us don’t like to change. We have built our neural pathways, and stick with the course on the way we think, and that’s really damaging to us because as we grow, we need to adapt and change thinking protocols, and to understand that social norms do change; and while we may continue with our core values, that we need to adapt and be flexible.

Brain health starts, in my view, with neuroplasticity. We know that in the brain there are billions of pathways and neurons firing off, and these are the roads that light up every time you think or feel something. Some of these roads are well-traveled, and those become the neural pathways that we fall into—our habits, our conditioning, and what we do almost intuitively or involuntarily. But once we’ve established these ways of thinking, doing, and behaving, every time we try to do something different, we fall back into those patterns.

It takes what I call, in my brain health work, the brain exercise. It’s every day, try to do something slightly different and then try to make that a good habit. One can certainly find his or her bad habits and go, “Okay, I’m going to change this,” but you’ve got to practice it. If we think about things differently, if we have a new emotion, or change an old habit, we start carving out a new road or pathway. If we start to travel this more often in our thinking, our actions, in our emotions, our brain begins to use these new pathways more and more, and then it becomes a second alternative and further second nature. Thinking about things differently or doing something differently will soon become habits, so why not create good habits and practices?

Again, it takes a lot of introspection to go, “Okay, how am I behaving wrong? What am I doing that’s not in my best interest?” Now, I don’t want to say there’s a right or wrong here; what I’m saying is for health and well-being. Since Transhumanism is about healthy longevity, continuous education, growth, and understanding, from the psychological point of view, I think it is a very strong practice to do this. Put your ego aside and learn how to say, “I’m wrong, I made a mistake,” or one of my favorite things is to credit someone else. When you have the awards and accolades, step back and say thanks to this person and thanks to that person, and when you fail, take full responsibility. That’s important.

Ross: I mean, to a point, this is about behavioral flexibility. Once you talk about improving your identified habits, which also could be able to change them, there’s also an aspect here of simply being able to vary your behavior. As you say, people get various patterns of what they eat and when they eat, the way they go to work, and simply be able to say, Well, I’ll do something different, not because it’s better or worse, just because it’s different for the sake of it, and being able to get to a state where you have behavioral flexibility, as in you are able to have a bigger and bigger repertoire of behaviors, leads to cognitive flexibility.

Natasha: That’s really well said. I like that you said that. My mother had dementia but she did crossword puzzles every day, she was an avid reader, and she was a keenly intelligent woman. But it was sad to see that. I spoke to a good friend of mine, Dr. David Eagleman, who had the TV show on the brain. I asked him, I said, what is this? What can be done differently? He said don’t do the same thing you do every day. If you’re excellent at doing puzzles, playing chess, doing a particular dance, or speaking a particular language, learn a different one, do something that is difficult, and get to that point where you’re going Ouch or Oh! or you’re at a point of frustration, and just get beyond that frustration. It’s challenging and is good for the brain.

The other side of the brain I wanted to mention is something called Adult Neurogenesis ANG. There’s been a lot of scientific controversy over whether the adult brain can grow neurons and some scientists who’ve done the research said absolutely cannot grow new neurons at the adult age in humans, that the prenatal stage is when most of our neurons are developed, some later on but not at the adult stage. Other scientific research shows that yes, indeed, adult humans can grow new neurons in the hippocampus part of the brain, which is about learning and memory.

That’s exciting. That’s just the beauty of the possibility of that, and if that’s true, then we really need to pay attention to not only synaptic plasticity and memory function but the physical things we can do that will help generate those adult neurogenesis or the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus. That ties into our basic genetic makeup, but it also ties into what we eat, how we sleep, how we exercise, and our community of people; Are we happy? Do we hang out with people who make us better people and feel respected and loved? Do we hang out with people who are criticizing us and shaming us? It’s really important as far as the amplifying cognition element is.

First off, be careful how we talk to ourselves. Some of us like to do everything really well, and if we don’t do it to the best of our ability, we come down on ourselves and get angry. But we need to stop that voice. While we’re saying that, our mind is listening to what we’re saying. Likewise, the people we hang out with in our community, who are these people? Because you will become them and they will become you on average. This is interesting. On average, you become pretty much the five people you spend the most time with. If you want to look at it mathematically and this is an approximation, of course, but who are the five people you spend the most time with? Consider how they are in the world and what is their attitude. What are their amplifying cognition capabilities? What are they doing to stay fluid in their thinking, and get beyond their own biases and whatnot? You’ll find that that’s very important for us.

It’s so basic. You think of neuroplasticity, changing habits, eating and sleeping well, being with lovely people, and doing exercise, it’s all great, but what’s it really going to do, it’s not the future, it’s not the real transhumanist goal of high-end technologies and uploading and all that but frankly, I think it’s exceedingly important. Before we get to any further high-end, technological advances, that are sexy, stunning, and all of that, first, we need to start with a solid foundation of understanding who we are as people, who we want to become, and to work at that.

Ross: But, in the podcast, we do try to focus on what we can do in the present. One of the core concepts in Transhumanism is that we might be able to upload our minds or transfer memories. Keeping it as close to the present as possible, what are the potential pathways that we can see today to be able to move to upload our minds or aspects of our memory externally?

Natasha: That’s an excellent question and a very important topic. We could turn to neuroscience and cognitive science and look at what’s being done today with individuals who have, for example, deep, deep depression, and extreme chemical imbalance in the brain that no drugs, no behavior, and no cognitive therapy can help with. It’s almost stuck. There are processes being developed and being used, not on a widespread basis, but they are still in the development stage, and they are showing success by stimulating certain areas of the brain. This is really important because getting through that block, whether it’s the chemical block or the entanglement in the brain or the inflammation, entanglement, or clogging of amyloids or whatever’s going on to cause this or the extreme chemical imbalance, we can get beyond that today to stimulate through electrical therapies to help people get beyond that.

That’s like reprogramming the brain in a way but going beyond it to stimulate the part of the brain that’s not being stimulated because there’s a blockage. Again, whether it’s the amyloid or it’s the entanglement or whatever the inflammation that’s blocking the drug to get through to, like a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, etc. 

Ross: Are you particularly referring to transcranial magnetic stimulation?

Natasha: Yes. Thank you. I didn’t know how technical I could get with the audience. But yes.

Ross: Please. Get specific. 

Natasha: Yes. Those types of processes are fascinating. It’s just mind-blowing. Now if we consider the rise in different dementia diseases, not only that disease of Alzheimer’s, which is its own disease and can be identified through having a gene that will cause Alzheimer’s to dementia, which can be the result of trauma to the brain, or it can be the result of ALS, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, any in the number of diseases and just inflammation and degradation of brain matter. It’s really important because we’ve got to be able to do that to protect memories. In those areas, there are ways to stimulate charges in the brain, through Magnetic Resonance, through different electrical charges, through getting beyond the stuff to ignite the brain, and that’s showing a level of success which is very important.

Now, you asked me about uploading and memory transfer and whatnot. Currently, what we have is video, we have audio, we have recording scrapbooks. If we take the idea of the original scrapbook where your parents and as children and adults, we take pictures and we write the date and what happened at that time, that’s a beautiful memory bank. Taking that into the artificial intelligence sphere, or the computational systems sphere, how can we transfer what the brain does, those neurological charges between the dendrites and their synapses into another matter that can be copied? That is the whole point of uploading, and it’s not possible yet today.

Now, certainly, Elon Musk with NeuraLink is trying to a degree. That’s all great. Other researchers are looking at how to copy some processes and some emotions, and identifying that, and what type of chemical charges there are and how to duplicate that through algorithmic copying. That’s really a fascinating area, but it’s still at the beginning stages. If you wanted to upload, you’d have to say, Oh, don’t do it quite yet. It’s a little bit ahead of the curve. Until we get to that point, the best thing we can do to amplify our cognition is to keep our brains as healthy as possible.

Any anger, stress, all these things that are pretty much everyday diseases for most human beings are things that we need to work darn hard at ridding ourselves of. That, again, takes a lot of introspection and honesty about one’s self. The anger we hold inside only hurts us. Meditation is great. A good night’s sleep is great. All these things although are not sexy, stunning, out there, shiny, all bright, and hitting the headlines, but they are the most important things we can do today to preserve the best of ourselves, our brain, the most important organ that we have, a precious brain.

It’s interesting. I wanted to just have a footnote here, I speak at a lot of conferences on longevity or AI future, the future of humanity, ethics, visionary ideas, etc., and very few of these conferences and events focus on the brain as a necessary part of longevity movement. Most are focused on either gene therapy, genetic engineering, stem cells, being very rigid in diet and all of that. All of that’s fine, but the brain is our most important organ. That’s why I’ve really switched gears and now I’m focusing on that. I’d like to take my research further from the work I did about seven years ago, proving that long-term memory persists through the field of cryobiology, bio-stasis, or cryonics. That was quite a wonderful project and I was very pleased with the outcome, and being able with my team to have a scientific breakthrough. That was great.

But that’s just one thing. There’s so much to do. It doesn’t have to necessarily be in a scientific lab, it can be just out with people, through empirical research, and doing our best to get others to be more active again to build that neural plasticity. 

Ross: Absolutely. You often say the most amazing thing in the known universe is the human brain. We still haven’t tapped its potential by any means. But of course, a lot of focus now is on AI. You’ve been appointed to the advisory board of Beneficial AGI.

Natasha:  Yes, I have.

Ross: That’s where…When we look at current trajectories, the big debate is, what is AGI? Is that something we’ll get to? When might we get there? What does that mean? Of course, we want this to be beneficial to humanity, and not everyone seems to believe that that will happen or might happen, but we can certainly do an immense amount to make it as beneficial as possible. I’d love to hear what’s that frame. What are the things that we can and should be or are doing today to move toward AGI being beneficial to humanity?

Natasha: Yes, there are certain pillars that I see with this. One of the biggest pillars for Beneficial AGI, or as the conference is called as Beneficial General Intelligence because it’s smoother to say, it is AGI. For Beneficial advanced artificial intelligence, bottom-up, learning as it goes, one of the biggest areas that it can help is the obvious ones, the narrow AI ones, sorting out data for doctors, sorting out information and data about our genetics to see pathway we need to be taking in our individual lives for personalized medicine, sorting out political issues, and what’s going on in the world, social issues.

Rather than statistics, gathering data through narrow AI will help build that out so we can then use our creative thinking cap with AGI to find solutions. One of the issues that we’re facing today is we don’t have enough data; we don’t have all the data in an objective method. We need data or information objectively, then we can apply future skills of scenario planning, strategic thinking, systems analysis, foresight, and forethought, etc., to find the best possible scenarios for the future. There’ll be many alternatives and then perhaps AGI can work with us to find the one that would work in time. Mind you, pivoting is important because things are changing so we need to learn how to pivot more in our thinking and amplifying cognition. That’s important.

A couple of areas that I am concerned about, I think the Beneficial AGI summit will certainly deal with is the concern that so many people have gotten on the bandwagon of existential risk, and the open letter by the Future of Life Institute. The naysayers are growing by leaps and bounds and we need to slow down a little bit, not in the development of AI, but a little bit in our fear of the future, and realize that AI is a tool. Fire was a tool and certainly, in our early hominid years, fire was the best tool. We didn’t create fire, but we created the facsimile of fire from seeing lightning, fires, and whatnot. To be able to make fire was a great achievement. Two stones are flint together, or rocks. That’s great. I think we can see AI as a tool that will benefit us, and give us warmth, insight, and light. If we use that metaphor that fire gave us light and warmth, and helped guide us, AI can do the same and we don’t have to be so afraid of it and halt it and whatnot. The fear that is in each person’s mind, again going to that cognitive plasticity and those old neural pathways, the fear takes over and gets more pressed, more tension than the possibility.

Ross: It is about our intent.

Natasha: Yes, exactly. Throwing into question our deepest-held beliefs about equality and opportunity for all, all these things, I think that AI can help us with that, or AGI, I should say. One of the areas that concern me as most people, for the consensus of a machine learning ethicist and whatnot, are concerned that it won’t make the world a better place, that there’s going to be what will happen, what will we choose to do? You could say that about your marriage, your relationship, or your animal companion, settle down, just relax and think, slow down the alarms in your brain that are setting off this frenzy, and apply your critical thinking skills. Apply the proactionary principle, for example. Look at all sides of the issue for a balanced result. If it’s too dangerous, don’t do it. If it’s less dangerous than what’s already happening, go ahead and try it. If it is unknown, then take it step by step.

That’s pretty much common sense with anything. If you’re skiing down a mountain, you’re not going to go for the biggest mogul right away, you’re going to practice on the bunny slopes and then ski down a few moguls then maybe go to the double diamonds. We’re not starting with the double diamonds. If you’re a skier, you’ll understand that, if you’re not, you’ll probably not, but that’s my favorite sport so I had to use it.

Ross: Just to round out, you’ve already given some practical advice but for those seeking to amplify their cognition, to think better, to be more in their thinking, work, and decision-making, what are the few small pieces of advice that you would give our listeners?

Natasha: First off, anytime you start getting stressed out or angry at something, slow down and stop. I have to practice it all the time. Because I could get so angry at people misconstruing transhumanism, I have to slow down and stop. Look for the Whys. Why are people doing what they’re doing that affects you in certain ways and try to understand it. Think before you send out a tweet for God’s sake, and think before you blame others, and if you’re blaming others, it’s probably you yourself that has an issue. Because oftentimes we rationalize what we do and we blame. The moment you start blaming, take a look inside.

Now those are just some bitter psychological things. But meditation, I meditate every day and it’s very important, transcendental meditation, any positive reinforcement, create a visualization and think about what you’re going to do each day, and what you can do for your own health. What can I do today to make today a great day for myself and my health? Then once you do that, you’ll be probably a hell of a lot kinder to other people. Don’t put other people first, put yourself first and give yourself a nice big hug. Then that will spread like a beautiful smile.

Practice neural plasticity. Now, this is the exercise, take it as a sport, like skiing, basketball, pickleball, or whatever it is, think of your brain plasticity as a sport you’re going to practice every day, and stick with it. Remember that dementia is tripling and that 152 million people in the world will have it by 2050 and you don’t want to be part of that group. Be healthy in what you eat, eat for your brain. Think about what is the best food for your brain and make that your primary diet. Go have your wine or your martini, your chocolate, and other things too. I don’t believe in too much rigidity. But think first about eating for health.

If you’re doing something, try doing something different. Learn a new skill. Again. brain plasticity is the most important thing we can do for amplifying cognition at this stage. You can take whatever smart drugs you want. Everyone can do their own research on that. But fundamentally, you can take all those mitigating opportunities but if you don’t practice brain plasticity, they probably won’t get you to where you want to go. Next, learn about adult neurogenesis, and think about what it would take for you to have your hippocampus, the dendrite area of it, the gyros, as flexible as possible to seed the growth of new neurons. That pretty much relies on exercise so get up and walk at least a mile a day. Be flexible, and stretch yourself. Go to the gym. If you don’t have a gym, go somewhere, just exercise. Get up. There’s no sense in not doing that. It just doesn’t make sense.

Follow my friend, David Eagleman, who is a neuroscientist and the host of the TV show, The Brain. He said Do something that challenges you, that’s tough, and if it causes you to go Ugh and struggle with it, then that’s good. The difficulties will make you succeed. That’s just wonderful. It’s not too tough and if someone says it’s too tough for me to do, just say you can do it; encourage others to be better people. When those around you, in your community or tribe, are losing a necessary perspective, try to help them and if you can’t help them, you have to leave. It’s a very hard thing to do. But if you can’t help someone that you love, it’s going to end up hurting you in the long run so just let it be. Again, that’s a struggle for all of us. But it ends up bringing us down and the only way we can help others is by being our best selves, as healthy as possible.

Ross: Awesome, thank you so much for those very pragmatic and grounded pieces of advice. People think of transhumanism as very transcendent. Everything we’re talking about is very present. Where can people go to find out more about your work? 

Natasha: Certainly, my website, it’s just my name, www.natashavita-more.com and I have most of my writings and interviews on there. I created the Center for Transhuman Studies, largely to clarify what transhuman is and what it is not. Because so many academics are getting it wrong, and so many journalists are getting it wrong as well. I really want to correct that because it doesn’t help anyone to get it wrong because I truly think that transhumanism is one of the most beneficial worldviews for humanity, especially today because it is pragmatic. It’s not science fiction, it’s not airy-fairy. It’s not up in the sky, Pollyanna. It’s real.

Those of us who created the movement, I wrote the manifesto, and Max More wrote the philosophy, and so many people were there at Ground Zero with it and we wanted to build a worldview that understood the advances in technology and could strategize the ways to overcome some of the conflicts and challenges ahead. We were very adamant about that. We weren’t thinking about being elitist, wealthy, living forever, and taking over the world, that had nothing to do with it. It was about living a healthy long life as possible and understanding that things are changing, and there will be new environments in the coming years, whether it’s 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, there will be worlds that we couldn’t even imagine today, in which we will coexist, we’ll live. Whatever that means, we don’t know yet. But if we continue to be healthy and alive and make the best choices for ourselves that influence and help others, then perhaps the world of the future can be a place worth living in.

Ross: That’s also a wonderful way to end. Thank you so much for your time, your insights, and all of your work, Natasha.

Natasha: Thank you so much. 

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