Who hasn't wished she could watch her brain at work and make changes to it, the way a painter steps back from a painting, studies it and decides to make the sky a different hue? If only we could spell-check our brain like a text, or reprogram it like a computer to eliminate glitches like pain, depression and learning disabilities. Would we one day become completely transparent to ourselves, and — fully conscious of consciousness — consciously create ourselves as we like?
The glitch I'd like to program out of my brain is chronic pain. For the past 10 years, I have been suffering from an arthritic condition that causes chronic pain in my neck that radiates into the right side of my face and right shoulder and arm. Sometimes I picture the pain — soggy, moldy, dark or perhaps ashy, like those alarming pictures of smokers' lungs. Wherever the pain is located, it must look awful by now, after a decade of dominating my brain. I'd like to replace my forehead with a Plexiglas window, set up a camera and film my brain and (since this is my brain, I'm the director) redirect it. Cut. Those areas that are generating pain — cool it. Those areas that are supposed to be alleviating pain — hello? I need you! Down-regulate pain-perception circuitry, as scientists say. Up-regulate pain-modulation circuitry. Now.
Recently, I had a glimpse of what that reprogramming would look like. I was lying on my back in a large white plastic f.M.R.I. machine that uses ingenious new software, peering up through 3-D goggles at a small screen. I was experiencing a clinical demonstration of a new technology — real-time functional neuroimaging — used in a Stanford University study, now in its second phase, that allows subjects to see their own brain activity while feeling pain and to try to change that brain activity to control their pain.