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Opioids Won't Solve the World's Chronic Pain. This Idea Might

Spurred by his own experience, National Geographic Explorer Albert Lin is testing the power of technology and the brain to heal.

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"What I learned in my physical experience is that so much of my reality is defined entirely in my mind," says Lin, who began exploring alternative forms of therapy for pain after undergoing an amputation.

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Albert Lin has made a career of using technology to fuel big new discoveries. He employed satellites and radar to seek Genghis Khan's tomb. And he recently helped discover the remnants of an ancient Maya megalopolis in the Guatemalan jungle using aerial scanning technology called LiDAR.

Along the way, he's pioneered new technologies in crowdsourcing and big data that have been used around the globe.

His work took a deeply personal turn when a vehicle accident resulted in a below-knee amputation in 2016. The research scientist and engineer became "partially bionic," he says, turning his attention to the frontiers of our minds and bodies.

Lin, a member of National Geographic's CHASING GENIUS Council, talked recently about where his experience has led him so far and where he'll go next.

You suffered intense pain following the amputation. What was that experience like, and how did you begin to look for brain-based solutions?

I literally could not function. The pain was so excruciating and constant that there was a point about a week or two weeks after the amputation where I remember thinking to myself, I would rather have died in the accident than have lived through it. They crazy thing was that I was feeling the pain in a part of my body that was no longer there. It's called “phantom pain.”

That's when I became very serious. I ended up meeting this world-famous neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran. We started working together on mirror therapy [which tricks the brain into seeing the missing limb in an attempt to remap the body in the mind]. It sort of worked, but then the effects would dissipate. I had to find some way of freeing my mind up so the remapping could hold. That's when we started doing all sorts of other things: kundalini yoga sessions, breathing meditations, sensory deprivation tanks, unstructured music, psychedelic therapy.

A visualization using EEG sensors measures Albert Lin's brain waves while he's in a state of "flow." Lin is exploring different ways to remap the brain to push past physical boundaries.

Video provided by Albert Lin/Instragram @exploreralbert

I was exploring these cultural “technologies” that transport us to these neuroplastic states. If I could do that in an intention-driven way, I could remap my brain and ultimately my perceptions of pain. There's many pathways to these states. In fact the greatest expressions of culture may have evolved out of a desire to chase those states, and tapping into that is where I believe you will find the essence of the “human potential.”

You describe using flow states in your research. Talk more about that?

My interpretation of "flow," a term first described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is when your ego drops away and you're completely in the moment. The reason why I think that's so important is because whatever happens in that moment, I've found, is when I'm the most neuroplastic. My brain is able to let go of its map or construct of the world and reorient itself to some new reality. I've often found that when I'm truly in flow, I come out of it and it feels like I just went through some deep meditation.

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Lin began as a National Geographic Explorer searching for Genghis Khan's tomb in Mongolia using satellites, ground-penetrating radar, and other technology.

Cultures have always created these things where we're trying to basically remap realities within our minds because that's essentially how the world was invented. The world was invented first in the mind, and then it becomes real. So out of the necessity for relief from constant and debilitating pain, I took this approach with my experience of having a phantom limb.

It's not going to be fixed by opioids or anything else like that, because I am feeling pain where there is no longer biology. It's going to be fixed by some more basic understanding of my mind and then using things like mirror therapy to sort of trick my mind into another arena.

And if it worked with something like pain, why can’t it work in other aspects of my world? It's been one of the most powerful experiences of my life. So now I'm trying to lab-ify it, to see just how far it can go.

How does that relate to the Center for Human Frontiers, the research center you founded at University of California San Diego?

What I'm trying to do with the Center for Human Frontiers is to work with cognitive scientists, visual artists, anthropologists, and engineers to quantify that and then apply it to how we actually look at a lot of these things. We need to rethink the way we look at the power of the mind, or the idea of placebo. That placebo is actually a really good thing—maybe it's the most important thing of all.

If somebody feels like they're actually getting completely healed by, I don't know, some energy work [for example], then thats a real thing, because it's in their mind and its believed. And if “flow states” allow us to get to that place where our minds can be plastic enough to retune to new perspectives then we should look at how we get to flow.


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Flow's not new. In fact, maybe it’s the motivation behind why we have come up with things like ceremonies or temple. What we plan to do now is go into the world looking for the type of practices or “technologies” that have been developed throughout cultures in our human attempt to achieve flow, learn from those, and then try to experiment with ways to bring that into how we design our future.

What opportunities do you see with our current technology?

What we can do with the technology angle is measure certain markers of this, like your brain state or your heart rate variability, then create these virtual reality augmentations that amplify that experience. I am lucky to be working with some incredible people on this now—folks like Sheldon Brown, who directs the Clarke Center for Human Imagination, and Ramesh Rao, whose work on “bliss buzzers” really inspired me. I am also working with some unbelievable musicians, “explorers of flow.” We can basically start to experiment with culture and the mind through a new age of sensors and augmented mediums.

I feel like we're inventing the world as we speak. Our world as it exists today is at a transitional moment. It's this weird blend where our minds aren't really in our bodies, they're sort of beyond our bodies. Our minds extend into both the analog and the digital world. So much of your mind might exist in the device in your hands. We fear things like AI taking over the world or the loss of humanity. Instead of trying to stop the progress of technology, it may be more useful for us to try to figure out how to use those tools to amplify our humanity.

Ancient Maya Cities Found Hidden in Guatemalan Jungle Follow National Geographic explorer Albert Lin as he uses technology to uncover a mysterious, ancient Maya city hidden deep in the Guatemalan jungle.
National Geographic Channel

You're also looking at how technology can help people get access to prosthetics. Tell me more about that.

I hike through the jungles of Guatemala. I climb mountains. I surf. Every time I see somebody with the same ailment, I realize how privileged I am to have access to the leg I have built for me. I feel both gratitude and an immense responsibility to do something. How can we use our connectivity to change the model of how we access care?

If I need to have a teleportation of my body to a prosthetist so they can fit my limb correctly to a mold, then that exists in our cyber world. In archaeology, we're using all these things like photogrammetry or other tools where you're trying to take low-cost camera gear and create 3D models of artifacts in these harsh environments.

Now, even with cell phones, you can make these 3D models of pretty much any object. There's 40 million amputees in the world, the majority of which don't live in an area of the world where the amputee population is well funded. Why don't we just turn their phones into the portal that allows them to travel to an expert who can then have something printed out [on a 3D printer] and sent to them? You can't expect to help 40 million people if you're telling them all to go to a super-expensive prosthetist.

What's the status of your pain now?

It still comes back after a super long day here and there, but my mental state of being, which I think really controls my physical state of being, is one where I feel like, man—I just got out of the surf, right? So it's been a really positive experience, learning that the power of my mind is so much bigger than I realized before.

What I learned in my physical experience is that so much of my reality is defined entirely in my mind, from that phantom limb pain to whether or not this is a big catastrophe in my life to whether or not it's one of the greatest gifts in my life.

Follow Albert Lin on Instagram: @exploreralbert