Alex Castillo and on-stage co-host Ben Freeberg talk about Empowering the Mind, which will be presented at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019.
Ben Freeberg: Welcome. I’m Ben Freeberg, one of the on-stage hosts of TEDxAsburyPark. Today I’m here with Alex Castillo, who will be a speaker at this year's TEDxAsburyPark Conference on May 18, 2019. Welcome, Alex.
Alex Castillo: Thank you for having me, Ben.
Ben Freeberg: Of course. To start off, Alex, would you mind telling our listeners a little bit about yourself and the idea you're going to be talking about at the conference?
Alex Castillo: Absolutely. I’m a software engineer and designer, born and raised in the Dominican Republic. I came to New York to finish my studies in communication design. Since then, I've been using design and technology to solve challenges and problems that I'm very passionate about, more recently about the human brain, which leads me to what I'm going to be talking about for TEDxAsburyPark.
Ben Freeberg: And can you share a little bit about the origin story? How you got excited about it and how you came to focus in on the human brain, which is quite interesting?
Alex Castillo: Having both family and friends suffering from depression, it really seemed like an area where I could use my skills to see if I could make an impact. So I got started by familiarizing myself with open source technology to image the brain. This is when I started engaging with OpenBCI, which is a company in Brooklyn, NY, and it was co-founded by one of my teachers from Parsons. OpenBCI is all about democratizing the human brain, so I got the technologies in my hand and I started just using my skills, visualizing data initially to see what brain data looks like, and then digging deeper into what all of these unfamiliar sequences of numbers mean, because this is exactly what this hardware gives you.
Several years later I co-founded a company called Neurosity, where we believe in empowering the mind. This actually goes into my TEDxAsburyPark topic. What happens when you give people the tools to try to know themselves better? What gets measured and gets managed? For to measure is to know. At the end of the day people won't remember you, what you said or what you did; they will remember how you made them feel. So having all of this in mind, we've been working on giving people those tools that are going to help them know themselves better, because I believe when we can actually quantify our mind, that’s when we can start learning more about ourselves.
Ben Freeberg: I definitely agree. So when you're thinking about bringing some of it into your own life, how do you do it (aside from when you're giving professional talks about it)--in just your day-to-day life, what are the few things you do to bring it to life?
Alex Castillo: Working in a startup, you have to wear many hats. Some of my hats are definitely on the software engineer and design side, from designing wearables that are friendly for everyone to writing code that lives both in the applications and on the device. So I'm working in multiple areas and there are different technologies you have to be aware of if you want to make something like this happen. You have on one end the machine-learning side of things, the Internet of Things, and then you have many different areas that you have to get familiar with and start putting in some work. It’s great because you start learning so many things, but at the end of the day it's how can you really work on solving problems that you know can be useful for people in general.
Ben Freeberg: And so what about the audience? Whatever their day-to-day job is, how could they bring this idea into their lives today?
Alex Castillo: We've been working on this and we haven't launched yet, but the way people would start incorporating this into their lives is that they would get our device. And this device is going to give them so many different types of insights about themselves.
Ben Freeberg: And what's the device going to be called?
Alex Castillo: That's not public knowledge yet, but it will definitely be a part of the talk, but we're really excited about what we have here.
Ben Freeberg: We'll just have to wait until May, then.
Alex Castillo: Yes.
Ben Freeberg: That's great. And then so what about if they're impatient and they want to get started now? Is there anything that they could do without your device and technology?
Alex Castillo: Yes, some existing technologies already have been used in hospitals for many, many years, including, but not limited to, EEG or electroencephalograms. They have been able to predict seizures and analyze seizure data... it's very exciting technology.
Ben Freeberg: It's wild. So how has your family been reacting to this and your work?
Alex Castillo: They've been extremely supportive and I am so grateful, because they know that this is something that goes beyond working towards paying the bills. We’re really trying to make a little dent in the world, asking how we use our time on earth here to try to do something that would help others the way so many other people have done things that have changed my life.
So they're very supportive and I've been basically talking to them about what this technology is capable of and some of the things that it can do to help. That includes giving them some of the existing products out there, so they can get a little taste of what it feels like to get some feedback about what happens inside your brain.
Ben Freeberg: I'm personally curious and hopefully some of our audience members are as well… can you tell us a few things that we might not know about the complexity of our brains and how you're playing off that with your research and technology?
Alex Castillo: Well, a basic fact about the brain is that the brain runs at around 20 watts of electricity. And as our neurons engage with each other, we're constantly creating electrical signals. So we're producing electricity. And a big part of this is what this technology is actually doing--it's measuring electrical signals produced by neurons, measured all the way up in the skull. So that's part of the foundation, but at the very high level, what interests me the most, is that you can get very high-level cognitive states produced or based on the frequencies at which your brainwaves are running. Pretty much you can tell the level of engagement or attention that someone is experiencing.
And sometimes not knowing exactly or just knowing even a little bit about your cognitive state can confuse you. Take attention, for instance, which is a huge topic when it comes to education and early development. Some kids have been told their whole life, "Pay attention, pay attention." Some of them don't even know what attention is. So how can you produce something that you're not familiar with? Attention is actually many things, and it’s why some people take in information differently based on their sensors. Some people place more emphasis on visual attention or auditory attention. So giving someone the tools to really know how that can change over time and what the trends of the attention span are can change peoples' lives.
Ben Freeberg: Very interesting. A lot of other folks are working on this. What inspired you to come out and be a little bit more open and share this story on the platform of our TEDx conference?
Alex Castillo: I'm obsessed with the human brain and there are so many things we didn't know about it. And while doing all this work, I've learned so much. I want to be able to share my experience, share with people like me. I don't have any neuroscience background. I'm not a doctor, I am someone who is in love with technology who uses this technology and design to try to solve real-world problems. So I would say I would love to inspire like-minded individuals, but most importantly I've learned so much from the TED platform and I just want to give back.
Ben Freeberg: Well, we're happy to have you. Before we conclude, are there any words of wisdom or advice you'd like to give our audience, either for themselves or for those who might be dealing with similar situations that you were with family, especially ahead of your product release?
Alex Castillo: Yes. All of this is really about trying to understand the mind and trying to get ourselves to know each other. So if anything, I’d say just be really curious and open to new possibilities. It could blow your mind, no pun intended.
Ben Freeberg: That’s awesome, Alex. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today.
Alex Castillo: Thank you for having me.
Ben Freeberg: Here’s a reminder to get your tickets for the largest, highest rated TEDx conference on the east coast. It's TEDxAsburyPark on Saturday, May 18, 2019 and you'll have an opportunity to hear more from Alex about his story and learn a little bit more about your own brain.
Read more about Alex Castillo here .