Neural Diversity

In my early 50s, I changed my research focus from engineered systems — such as airplanes, ships, and power plants — to healthcare delivery. The central question was how to make the fragmented system in the US more effective and efficient.

Now in my early 70s, I have for the past couple of years been focused on disabled and older adults, particularly in terms of how AI and other assistive technologies can help members of this population overcome cognitive disabilities.  Within the US, this population numbers almost 100 million people, almost one third of the population and growing.

This initiative has caused me to learn much more about mental health in terms of both intellectual and developmental disabilities and the impacts of aging on cognition, for example, the scourge of dementia.   The variations among mental health challenges are wide indeed.

Yet, many people with such challenges can thrive if appropriately supported by assistive technologies and, of course, supportive people and organizations. Working with such people, I learned about the concept of neural diversity.

There are not simply two categories of humans — normal and not normal.  There is a whole spectrum of cognitive abilities and limitations. The goal is to match assistive technologies to individual abilities and preferences so they can do their jobs, including the activities of daily life. The goal is not to make everybody normal.

I recently encountered Michael Pollan’s latest book, How to Change Your Mind. He relates how new psychedelic science is likely to have an enormous impact on illnesses like anxiety and depression.  Particularly relevant here is the observation, emphasized in his final chapter, that there is neural diversity within individuals.  There are multiple forms of consciousness, as William James argued well over a century ago.

Neural diversity is a natural phenomenon. Emerging assistive technologies can adapt their support to each individual, perhaps even to their neural state at the moment, e.g., no longer just trying to complete a task, but now feeling anxious and afraid.  One size does not have to fit all. Each individual is not simply an exemplar of a larger category of people. Each of us is a group of one.

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