Mind Over Matter

The Journey to the Wild Divine
“Just wait until you see the purple zebra,” says Andrew Cutter, a clinical technician at the University of Rochester’s Sleep and Neurophysiology Research Laboratory. He smiles and punches a few buttons on his laptop. Seeing my raised eyebrows makes his grin widen. “Trust me, you’ll get there.”

I’ve invited Andrew to give me a demo of The Journey to the Wild Divine, a special videogame he’d used while working at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I look at the game’s box, and in the corner, under hot air balloons and a waterfall, sits a pleasant-looking woman at her laptop while menacing purple clamps crush her fingertips. Inside the box is a CD interview with pop psychologist Deepak Chopra, along with The Journey to the Wild Divine: The Companion Guide. Idly, I thumb through its pages, picking out phrases like “The Breathing Tree,” “Temple of Great Compassion” and “Axis of the Double Durga.”

“You know, this is why people don’t take this stuff seriously,” I say, tossing the book aside.

“Yeah, I know,” he sighs. He fiddles with a pod-like device, which, for all I can tell, is just an overgrown USB port. “But it was the best I could get for under $500.”

The Journey to the Wild Divine is a videogame only in the loosest of definitions. Its gameplay takes input not from controllers, microphones or keyboards, but from your body’s natural rhythms, such as breath and heartbeats. Sensor clamps attach to your fingers and read your skin conductance and heart rate variability; by varying these physiological signs, you can control various elements in the game, from levitating a ball to creating a rainstorm. Essentially, you play the game with your mind, forcing your body, and the game, to do whatever you command.

While The Journey to the Wild Divine teaches you how to enter a calmer, more restful state, not all biofeedback games focus on relaxation. Some concentrate on increasing your productivity, others on maximizing your energy levels. “It all comes down to operant conditioning,” says Andrew. “Videogames can give you more immediate feedback.”

Naturally, ever since I’d heard Andrew mention these games, I’d been dying to give one a go. A videogame you play with your mind? Talk about a gamer’s greatest fantasy. What could be more tempting than the complete eradication of any physical effort whatsoever? No more hand cramps. No more carpal tunnel. Just hook up the feeding tube, log on the computer and play until your eyeballs bleed.

More seriously, though, I was genuinely curious about this convergence of mind and machine. Controlling inanimate objects with the power of thought has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades, but here it was, tangible and real. We’d invented the first disintegration of boundaries between man and tool. What could this new electronic evolution mean for paraplegics, amputees and autistics trapped by their bodies? What could it mean for me? Would we one day become ghosts in our own machines?

So far though, such speculation seems entirely unwarranted. For being the next step in human evolution, The Journey to the Wild Divine looks awfully like a medieval torture device.

Andrew starts the program. Onto the screen swirl images of stars and nebulae, while an ethereal string quartet swells into a one-note crescendo. “In the beginning,” monotones a sleepy, grandmotherly voice, “there were and continue to be the great Gardeners, who live in the Metaverse, a vast farm fertile with energy, creativity, intelligence and love.”

I roll my eyes. She continues, unfazed.

“Welcome to the Garden,” she drawls. “You are here because you remember that you too are a Gardener.” The camera zooms onto a flower-covered hill, where a woman dressed like a Lord of the Rings extra sits and writes in a large book. She finishes her magic poem or whatever and closes the tome, walking off into the distance.

Suddenly, something materializes from a white mist. It is, indeed, a purple zebra. The Tolkien woman serenely leaps onto its back, and they gallop away.

“Andrew … ” I’m not sure I can take this much longer. He chuckles as he places the purple clamps (much like the shade of that striped steed) on my fingers.

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Now I’m strolling through a different garden, this time situated on a white terrace. A plump, white-haired woman dressed like Bilbo Baggins’ great-aunt welcomes me to the world of the Wild Divine. In a husky smoker’s voice, she informs me that “this is a place of magic.” I wonder how much she was paid to do this. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.

She points me toward an eight-point pinwheel, ordering me to blow on the object and make it turn. For a moment, I stare blankly at the screen, still processing my task, before obliging her with a tentative huff. The pinwheel nudges slightly. Intrigued, I blow harder, as if I were trying to spin a real-life pinwheel. In response, the digital one spins rapidly.

Okay, for all the gardens and zebras and women in Ren Faire garb, that was kind of cool.

We Can Rebuild You …
Biofeedback games like The Journey to the Wild Divine are not the only way scientists have been experimenting with thought-controlled machinery. Recently, artificial limbs like the Bionic Arm have entered the clinical testing phase.

The Bionic Arm is a six-motor cybernetic prosthesis controlled entirely by its owner’s thoughts. Developed by Dr. Todd Kuiken, director of the Neural Engineering Center for Bionic Medicine at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the prosthesis is the result of over 20 years of research efforts. “My goal with amputees has always been to develop more natural and graceful prostheses,” says Kuiken. “Prosthetic technology is primitive, and I knew we could do better.”

Through a surgical process known as “targeted muscle reinnervation,” nerves that once connected to the amputated arm are rerouted, linking instead to healthy muscle fibers in the chest and shoulder. The motorized prosthesis is then attached the site of amputation. The rerouted nerves can now direct signals to the robotic limb using surface electrodes; thought-generated impulses are interpreted and travel down the arm, guiding its movement. The result: When the patient thinks about moving his arm, he does.

This is quite a step up from the body-controlled hands, hooks and other prostheses currently available on the market. Essentially just scrap metal, wood and plastic co-opted by the patient to approximate the missing limb, these limbs are awkward and frustrating to manage. “They can be clumsy, tiring and hard to learn how to use, especially for those with higher amputations,” Kuiken explains. “The thought-controlled arm allows its user to move in a more natural way – simply by thinking.”

Since the Bionic Arm’s invention in 2002, seven patients have undergone targeted muscled reinnervation, says Kuiken, and the surgery has been successful in all but one case. Jesse Sullivan, a Tennessee man who became the first to be outfitted with the Bionic Arm, has received most of the media attention. Once a power line worker, Sullivan lost both his arms in 2001 due to severe electrical burns. Four years later, he volunteered to test the new technology, and his progress has been astonishing. The greatest surprise is that Sullivan has actually recaptured some sensory ability with his robotic limb. He can now sense heat and vibration with it, and if you press on his chest muscles, he feels as if you’d touched his mechanical pinky.

Kuiken hopes to one day use the Bionic Arm for veterans returning from combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of 2006, more than 400 amputees have been treated in Army hospitals; the Bionic Arm, Kuiken hopes, has the potential to vastly improve their lives. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency agrees; along with money from the National Institute of Health, Kuiken’s research is funded by a multi-lab grant from DARPA worth almost $50 million.

All this makes a thought-controlled videogame seem like a trivial enterprise; if we can construct artificial body parts that our minds can control, we can certainly design other electronics with which to interface mentally. Like Sullivan, we can literally become one with our machines; by manipulating them at a primal level just at the boundary of consciousness, we could bend them entirely to our will.

Mind Over Videogame
I continue experimenting with The Journey to the Wild Divine, juggling energy balls and waving mystic wands. Eventually, however, I’m taken to a courtyard, where a tall black man, also dressed in Shakespeare’s hand-me-downs, stares contently at a purple ball floating by his outstretched hands.

He jibbers about more Gardening mumbo-jumbo crap, and by this point, I’ve learned to tune out anything that sounds remotely New Age or hippie-esque. Therefore, I almost miss it when he tells me to clear my mind and that with calm, even breaths, I can control the ball at will. “We call it Peaceful Breath,” he says. Oh man. Whatever you say, dude; I hope you got paid as much as Great-Aunt Baggins over there. I click on the ball.

I know I’m supposed to be calm and centered instead of three seconds away from losing it entirely, but I can’t help it. His faux-mystic demeanor is so unnatural and stilted that I’m finding it hard to stop giggling and achieve my Peaceful Breath. In fact, the more I try to breathe slowly and deeply, the funnier his hokey speech becomes. I think I’ve developed spontaneous ADHD. Man, I’d be the worst Zen Buddhist ever.

I shake my head and start over, forcing my breath to be deep and powerful, like the inhalations they teach you in Pilates. But the ball stands still. The cello music seems to get louder, even angry. Bigger, deeper breaths now, like a yak in heat. Still nothing. Andrew looks over at me and snickers quietly. I try again, but that ball just isn’t going anywhere.

With a sigh, I look away from the screen to clear my head. My eyes light on my fish, a little aquatic Buddha, swimming in his tank across the room. Watching him methodically pace his tank, figure-eighting around his shipwreck and schooling with his own reflection, I feel much calmer and lighter. The giggles have stopped. I breathe shallowly, but slowly and easily as well.

The man abruptly laughs. “There it goes! Very good!” and I’m amazed to see that the purple ball has levitated its way off the screen. It took me more than five minutes to get that ball to move, but eventually, I got it. I feel very strange and pleased with myself. For all its New Age hokum, the core game mechanic in The Journey to the Wild Divine is actually really cool.

Noticing my grin, Andrew smiles, too. “Good job,” he says. “You did well.”

I ask him what he thinks about The Journey to the Wild Divine. He pauses before replying. “Videogames have gotten kind of a bad rap, because for a long time, they were just about instant gratification, something to do when you didn’t have anything else,” he says. “But videogames don’t necessarily have to be just for entertainment. You can use them for you, instead of allowing them to merely take up your time.”

While optimistic about the potential for thought-controlled electronics and devices, Andrew insists that Journey to the Wild Divine‘s importance isn’t the technological advance, but in better understanding the power of our complex minds. “Our brain is pretty much set up to do whatever we want it to do,” he says. “You can teach yourself anything, and to an incredible degree.”

Will we come to a point where computers become neuroprosthetics, electronic devices that can literally read our minds? After this, I still don’t know. The Bionic Arm is incredible progress, but judging by Journey to the Wild Divine, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Thankfully, too. As fun as it was to levitate a ball with my thoughts, I’m not sure I’m ready to ride off into the sunset on a purple zebra. At least, not yet.

Lara Crigger is a freelance science, tech and gaming journalist whose previous work for The Escapist includes “Playing Through The Pain” and “How To Be A Guitar Hero.” Her email is lcrigger[at]gmail[dot]com.

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