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Lauren Bayer

Student, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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Will mind-reading eventually become a reality and what are the implications for humanity?

This week in my bioelectricity class, we learned about using electrical stimulation to mimic the electrical signals of the body. The nervous system uses electrical signals as it performs its tasks of communicating, processing information, storing memories, etc. As we learn more about the language of the nervous system, we can use advanced technology to “speak” to the body and get it to perform tasks that the body's nervous system might not be able to do. Neural prosthetics, for instance, provide electrical stimulation to the nerves that are connected to muscles, allowing those muscles which were paralyzed to move again.
As we learn more information about the “language” of the nervous system, science has begun to correlate certain actions or stimuli with specific frequencies and behavioral patterns of electrical activity in the brain. For example, many scientists studying the visual system look at firing rate patterns in the visual cortex of the brain and use the data to predict the images that are being seen.
Ultimately this reverse correlation process might be able to be applied to all parts of the brain, including memory.
This led me to wonder, do you think that there will ever be a time where we will literally be able to read people's brains? If we can one day understand how the brain processes every bit of information – then theoretically we should be able to measure the electrical activity from the deep layers of the brain and be able to predict what the person is thinking. And also in the reverse direction – what would happen if we could ever be able to use electrical stimulation to “insert” memories into people's brains?
Do you think this technology could be useful for treating patients with dementia who have lost their memories – in which patients could create a “back-up” file of their own memories in case they ever start to lose it? What implications would such technology have on humanity? And do you see ways in which it could be detrimental/beneficial?

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  • Apr 18 2013: I would be disappointed very much, if someday what you described would not be possible(because we either ceased to exist or it simply isn't possible). I find it easy to believe to retrieve the information of the electric signals within the brain and hence retrieve the neural pattern leading to concrete information as it is already kinda possible with Magnetic Resonance Tomography. So when it has become easily managable there will as well be technology to block it off, mimicking the development of every weapon and armour technology. It would be useful for law enforcement, because you can extract the honest truth out of everyone like more efficient lie detectors as it is possible with the MRT to sea if creative or remembering parts of the brain are active.
    It would simplify communication a great deal leading to a overall more understanding development of life. But actually until that has been achieved I think there will be a great deal of major modifications shaking up the system making our predictions without knowledge of these more erroneous.
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      Apr 18 2013: Hi Hans,
      thank you for your contribution to the conversation! You're right I think that the way neuroscience research is moving, we will be able to achieve this goal. And with the new technologies will obviously come the protective technologies to ward against people tapping into our thoughts.
      I'm curious about what you said about how mind reading would simplify communication - do you mean person to person communication? Wouldn't it make communicating amongst people harder, since people will now have to have better control over their thoughts and would have less privacy..

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