Thought creates intention.
Intention creates action.
And at least in the case of German Aldana, a 26-year-old from South Florida, action creates freedom.
“It’s intense to see how fast you can make it around the racetrack,” he says. “The speed and how good it drives; it’s amazing. It turns perfectly. Everything just seems so different.”
Aldana uses the word "different" because outside of the 10 minutes on this Wednesday in May where he was in the driver’s seat of a NASCAR cup car, German has no control over his movement.
“It was a motor vehicle accident. I was a backseat passenger. I was 16 when it happened to me, so I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt, and next thing I know was I had a spinal cord injury; C4, so I’m a quadriplegic,” he says from his electric wheelchair. “You know, you have frustrations because you’re used to being independent. You’re 16, you’re in high school, you play sports so then, I don’t know, within seconds your life changes and you depend on so many people.”
Life had come at this now 26-year-old fast. Waking, washing, everything outside of talking now requires assistance.
So, as German started treatments to regain whatever movement he could shortly after the accident, he came across neurosurgeon Scott Falci who figured why not at least try to go faster.
“That mobility and independence is everything for [people with quadriplegia],” said Falci. “A large swath of this population has a love of motorsports and cars, and I get it because it gives you a lot of independence and freedom if you can drive a car, so the thought was let’s bring a new adaptive sport to the spinal cord injured population, that of motorsports.”
It is what brings us back to why German was sitting in the driver’s seat of this NASCAR cup car, rather than the passenger’s seat, because using nothing other than his mind, he was able to guide that racecar around the track for 10 consecutive minutes at speeds upwards of 50 mph.
It all happens inside German’s head.
After he agreed to take part in this first-of-its-kind trial, German had an electrode placed on his brain.
It would read every thought German had, lighting up in different patterns as he thought about different things.
That electrode was then attached to a computer that was taught to recognize only one thought pattern: the thought of German squeezing his hand.
Every time it would light up in that pattern, the computer processor would communicate to the race car and tell it to accelerate. The more German thought about squeezing his hands, the faster the car would go as German could then control the steering through a specialized helmet that was sensitive to movement.
Wherever German tiled his head, the steering wheel would follow.
It is futuristic, it is complex, and it is how German, with no assistance other than the surveillance of an emergency driver, put the technology to the test by driving for the first time ever.
“It’s something that you can’t imagine, you have to live it,” he said after finishing his drive. “The adrenaline as you go by; you’re just so focused you don’t see anything else, but the ride and it feels amazing.”
This is something that few people had once thought possible, but through intentional thought, German was able to create freedom for himself and countless others.
“The potential is tremendous,” said Falci. “If we can capture various thoughts consistently and translate that into mechanical action, we can change the lives of these people on a daily basis.”