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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: Re: "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."

    Again, we enter the realm of contradictions between omnipotence and omniscience, free will and determinism. Knowing the future IS changing the future. If we change the future we knew was going to happen, it means that our knowledge was incorrect.

    You think, you control your thoughts. But, as you are reading this, you process what I write. At this very moment I control your thoughts. Note that as I am writing it, I control your FUTURE thoughts because you have not read it yet. Weird, ha?

    I believe, instant transfer of thoughts will not be meaningful or helpful. I'm quite happy that other people cannot read my thoughts before I put them in order. Direct thought exchange would not improve understanding each other.

    Ability to forget information is as essential as the ability to remember. Without it, we would be extremely confused and stressed-out like some autistic people who don't have the ability to filter out and forget unimportant details (remember how Dustin Hoffman involuntary remembered all numbers from the phone book in "The Rainman" movie?) Forgetting past painful experiences is an important survival mechanism.
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      Apr 19 2013: Hi Arkady,
      thanks so much for your insightful comment. I think you bring up a good point about our ability to forget. I think that's probably a process that occurs in our brains and everyday life that often gets overlooked. While it is important for our everyday life to learn how to forget things, if we forget too much to the point that we don't remember who we are - then isn't that bad? I was thinking originally in the cases of people with dementia that don't remember very basic things about themselves to have this technology where if they know they are going to get alzheimers - we could allow the long term memory parts of the brain to be stored in some way or another so that they could recall those long term memories when they begin to forget them.. Obviously, if a memory is already in long term - they don't want to forget it. The short term memory, however, you're right in that it's probably not worth it to save.
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        Apr 19 2013: Re: "if we forget too much to the point that we don't remember who we are - then isn't that bad?" Yes, everything in excess can be bad, even moderation.

        Unfortunately, it's the short-term memory which people with Alzheimer's lose first. E.g., my father's friend calls him every 15 minutes to ask what time it is complaining that they have not talked for a long time; or she cannot find her keys. The long-term memory, however, is fine. Once in a while, when she is in the care facility, she would wonder why she is not home and would want to "go home" - to the address where she lived 40 years ago. It's very sad.

        People with Alzheimer's are often even unaware that they forgot something. When people remind them, they often take it as complete news. They won't remember how to use a cell phone, much less how to use some high-tech device. I'm sure, they would even deny that they need any kind of "memory device". The trick with "memory devices" is remembering to use them in the first place - a notebook would do the job, if you remember where it is. It's very possible that this device that can read human memory would not read anything from the brain of a person suffering from Alzheimer's disease. (You may have guessed that I'm not a great fan of high-tech gadgets - I don't own a smart phone).

        There is another interesting kind of memory called "implicit memory". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit_memory It's the one we use when we learn to ride a bicycle or pour water into a glass. It's subconscious and independent of explicit memory: "amnesic patients showed unimpaired ability to learn tasks and procedures that do not rely on explicit memory." Implicit memory also makes us believe familiar statements, even if we were explicitly warned that they are false. http://research.chicagobooth.edu/cdr/docs/FalseClaims_dpark.pdf

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