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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: It is difficult to speculate without expertise in this field, but I could see our eventually being able to "read" using technology images, colors, and things people might conceptualize visually, like a number. I am less convinced in technology's being able to provide a reliable read of a train of thought, except in the sense that one can look at a painting like Munch's Scream , Klimt's The Kiss, or Picasso's Guernica and read an idea that seems to be communicated in each of them by the artists.

    I agree with what you have said below that we do not read each others minds but can from experience develop reasonable hypotheses about what people feel or think or are about to do from their facial expressions, words, and body language.

    I think there may be effective ways already of inserting "memories" of a sort within people's brains through psychological rather than technical means, though these methods probably would not work on people with Alzheimers.

    I dislike the idea of using technology to read people's brains without their permission, as I think people are entitled to the privacy of their thoughts. There have been numerous fictionalized accounts of scenarios in which people either have a gift of actually reading other people's minds or some dystopian government authority does.

    In one of the Harry Potter books, Dumbledore can withdraw a memory from his head and place it in some kind of pot where other people can also see it. This proved useful to Harry.
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      Apr 18 2013: Hi Fritzie,
      thanks for your comment!
      I really like the Harry Potter reference, and totally forgot about the whole pensive. I think that idea of putting thoughts into a pensive, is related to what I spoke about how one day being able to save our memory on a flash drive.
      And you bring up an interesting point about people already being able to insert memories into people's heads. This leads me to wonder - if we can already do this psychologically, then if we can do it electrically the effects of such kinds of treatments will probably be super strong! People might start to forget what's actually real and what's fake.

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