Hack the Brain 2016

I could have really used some spine vibrations when I woke up Monday morning, but—unfortunately—I couldn't find a Bisensorial device. Luckily, a good breakfast was at hand, so I managed to engage my brain through pleasing my gut and didn't suffer drowsiness behind the wheel.

Sure, participating is more important than the end result—especially at a hackathon. But with such amazing results, I cannot restrain myself from telling you all about these hacks! First of all, I'd like to extend a big congratulations to all the hackers. Not only did all the teams manage to come up with a hack including both artistic and scientific elements, but they all came up with working prototypes as well! While every team had a different approach and all hacks were novel, the jury still had to appoint some winners…

First prize goes to team Bisensorial! This beautiful and interesting brainhack is inspired by the introduction of AI and autonomous systems in healthcare. Their question was “can mental disorders be treated autonomously?” And their answer? Bisensorial, a wearable technology that uses sound and haptic vibration stimulation to induce calmness. By measuring alpha and beta responses from the brain, Bisensorial learns the individual needs of its user. My question? How can I get one?

Second prize goes to team, 100% Engaged! Their hack visualizes the difference between the collective engagement of a group compared to the additive engagement of all individuals in the group—there is a difference! Engagement is measured through beta-, theta- and alpha-waves with Muses. Could we use this hack to stimulate group processes and study group consciousness? As an added extra, the hack is visualised in the form of a paper structure mimicking a flower with colour changing LEDs. All in all, it's a very beautiful and subtle design.

Third prize goes to team, BAT! The BAT (Brain AssistanT), including the BAT-hat with Open BCI, measures both brain and muscle activity as well as heart rate. When unusual activity is detected (for example, in the case of an upcoming epileptic attack, or drowsiness behind the wheel), BAT can send a signal to you, your emergency contact, or your Tesla car to bring you to safety. This is a big project with many practical applications and a nicely designed app.

The “Insane-but-maybe-possible-in-some-distant-future Award” goes to Second Brain! This team set out to explore other cognitive structures in our bodies. No, they didn't find a secret brain lurking in your leg—but there is something interesting going on in and around our gut. To investigate the relationship between the brains in our heads and those in our gut, this team created an installation called “Brainy-gutty”. An Open BCI is used to detect the signals produced simultaneously by the brain and the gut. These signals are then sent to an Arduino, which modulates the power of two pumps. The pumps inflate a bunch of plastic bags alternatively, according to the strength of the brain and gut signals. The plastic bags sustain two transparent plastic spheres containing liquids: one sphere is half filled with artificial blood, the other sphere is half filled with saliva (from the team). The two spheres are lifted and lowered in synchrony with the gut-brain signals, exchanging their liquids through transparent plastic tubes. A thought-provoking brainhack!

“I think, therefore I am”

As Descartes made us realise: we have the ability to question, to think and to re-think our ideas. This might even be that which makes us human. But how do we question, think and re-think? Scientists have shown that the grey matter inside our heads plays a big role in this all. Artists continue to stimulate our minds, provoke us with new questions and challenge all our ideas. Then again, none of this would have been possible without the continuous technological improvements the developers in this world make possible. But while these disciplines thrive and make new discoveries; what do we really know?

"We think, therefore we hack"

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Martijn Arts

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