A half-century ago, Psychology Today was launched in Del Mar, California, the charter cover a childlike drawing meant to evoke unfettered creativity. PT’s founder, Nicholas Charney, was fresh from a doctoral program in biopsychology at the University of Chicago, where he learned that the public’s interest in the mind was at an inflection point. He sensed a growing appetite for translational takes on behavioral science. Fast forward more than 400 issues and all manner of best-selling books and
“psychoedutainment,” and Charney looks to have been highly prescient. Also in the late 1960s, in a move that would make waves in mathematics, a genius by the name of Alexander Grothendieck withdrew from the milieu that he himself had radically transformed. I became intrigued by the French mathematician shortly after his death in 2014 and have written, “The Mad Genius Mystery” in hopes of understanding his unusual mind and trajectory. It turns out that breakthroughs in neuroscience documented in PT, including neuroimaging and an understanding of the brain’s default mode network(“25 Big Ideas That Began Here”), are instrumental in constructing a coherent theory about geniuses like Grothendieck.
The year 2017 marks another inflection point in the study of the human mind: The next 50 to 100 years will bring the ability not just to quantify but also to alter fundamental aspects of identity. Today we are at base camp in a rapidly accelerating climb to the augmented brain: Intelligence will be more malleable, and so might the subjective experience of gender or even personality traits. To reach this summit, scientists may use some combination of genetic editing and brain-computer interfaces. These tools thrill and scare us in equal measure. They are perhaps best construed as an egalitarian force in a world changing at warp speed.