Positive Technology: Controlling the Vacuum Cleaner…with your Mind

This week, I had the chance to do something remarkable (at least in my book): I controlled a computer with my mind. I attended a talk given by Sven Gabor Janszky who is one of Germany´s eminent futurologists. During his presentation, I volunteered for an experiment: he put a device (a kind of headset) on my head (see photo below) that serves to detect my brainwaves (electroencephalography; EEG). The data is then fed into a laptop that is able to identify individual patterns of brain activity. Basically, an algorithm learns what your brain does when you think a specific thought.


First, the algorithm needs a baseline. For about 20 seconds, it registers what you do when you don´t think of anything at all (what neuroscientists now call the default network). Then, you´re given a task. For example, you see a cube on the screen and the goal is to move that shape from the center to the left of the screen. So, there are two trials of just 8 seconds. In that time, the algorithm learns what your brain does when you think/imagine “Cube, please move to the left!”. After that, you´re able to move the cube just with mind – as long as you are pretty consistent with regard to your mode of thinking while trying to move the shape.

In a second experiment, my goal was to make the cube disappear – which is harder because basically our brain is not made to think about things that are not there. But I also managed to that after just two trial runs. It was really easy. You can have a look at the exact same procedure via this TED talk by Tan Le:

There are a couple of really good news in this story: First, I do have a brain. I could watch it on the screen and see it do its magic. Hey, I mean you can never be sure until you see it. Second, making that cube move around was really easy. The whole procedure only took about three minutes. And finally, the technology behind it all isn’t that expensive any more.

So for me, the question is: will this be a piece of positive technology in the near future? We´ll see. I´m very sure the military are all over it already, trying to fly jets or tanks that way. I mean, if you can move an image on a screen, you can also move a vehicle. Which brings us back to the post´s title. Maybe, in the near future, we will be able to operate the vacuum cleaner sitting in an armchair watching reruns of the X Files.

But then, there might be use cases that are far more beneficial. If there´s a distinct brain pattern for “Cube, please move left!” – then there could also be a distinct brain pattern for, e.g., “I feel like my life has a meaning”, or “I feel grateful and at peace with myself and others”. And if that were the case (and the technique became so cheap as to make it a mass-market product) then it could become a powerful tool to prevent people from slipping into depression or other psychological disorders.

I´ll stay tuned…

Another Day in Positive Psychology Paradise…

Today has been the third day of MAPP immersion week – another day packed with truly extraordinary experiences. Today´s lectures took place at Wharton Business School. For the morning, Martin Seligman invited a guest lecturer, Chandra Sripada, who introduced us to concept of the Default Mode Network of our brain – which basically represents the specific and recurring pattern of activation in the brain that can be seen in fMRI studies when the brain is supposed to be doing “nothing at all” (which obviously isn´t the case). Being in the default mode seems to be connected to the mental task of prospection which involves future-oriented problem-solving, creating mental simulations of the world and the minds of other people, and daydreaming (among other things). I´m pretty sure that I´ll write more about prospection in the near future (no pun intended) – but I am still “digesting” all of that input – so this will have to do for today,

Over lunchtime, we were invited over to the Positive Psychology Center at Penn to meet, greet and eat with Seligman´s research team.


For the afternoon, Marty invited Barbara Fredrickson, the world´s foremost researcher on positive emotions and their role in human flourishing. She developed the Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotion which basically posits that the reason why we experience positive emotions is fundamentally different from the reason for the existence of negative emotions. While negative emotions such as anxiety provoke narrow(ing), immediate survival-oriented behaviors, positive emotions are supposed to broaden our awareness and inspire novel, exploratory, and creative thoughts and/or actions. In turn, this expanded behavioral repertoire builds our skills, resources, and resilience. All of that needs some further mental digestion as well. You can find one of Barbara´s books on the reference list.

The high point of the day was an invitation from Martin Seligman and his wife Mandy for food and drinks at their house in the outskirts of Philadelphia. I feel very honored since usually, he´s more likely to associate with top-tier researchers, political and military leaders – or the Dalai Lama. Thanks for that one, Marty…