TED Conversations

Lauren Bayer

Student, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

This conversation is closed.

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?

Share:

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Apr 19 2013: Hi Lauren,
    This is a cogent question for our times.
    I'll make a few observations:

    1. Electrical signals are less than half the story in neuronal function. It is true that a neuron uses electrical potential as part of the process, but all the rest is chemical. If you stimulate a neuron electrically, it will eventually die if the chemical correlates are not also taken care of. So on that score, we have a long way to go.
    2. Firing patterns can be used analytically, but they are a blunt instrument - the firing rate of a neuron has more to do with the phase-locking of synaptic pathways.
    3. Frequencies such as beta/alpha waves etc are more caused than causal .. once again, a blunt instrument.
    4. Memories in a brain are not like computer memory. They are contextual and appear to work by association rather than store/retrieve.

    The whole key to what a brain is, and what it does, is the context in which it operates. The contextual framework self-organises in incredibly complex layers defined by synaptic potentials. This arrangement has been referred to as a "connectome" .. and lately, I have seen that this term has divided into 2 meanings:
    1. The fine topology of synaptic potentials between neurons
    2. The coarse potentials between functional areas of the brain.
    Of these, it is the latter which is currently being researched to determine aspects of psychology.

    Context being the key to everything - without that key, there will be no reading of minds. Context is infinite and subtle - each moment and each location possesses a unique context.

    The best we could do on that front seems to be to understand how the RTPJ (Right Temporal Parietal Junction) works:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/rebecca_saxe_how_brains_make_moral_judgments.html

    But even if we were to ultimately uncover exactly what is going on in a mind, we would not understand it - the flaw being that it will be "read" by applying it to our own context - in doing that, the meaning changes - so we will never read minds.
    • thumb
      Apr 19 2013: Hi Mitch,
      thank you for your comment. I think you bring up a really important point about context when it comes to forming the circuitry of the brain. I always wondered, if it would ever be possible to have a person who already has dementia to become who they were and remember the past through some type of treatment that focuses on rebuilding the synaptic connections that were destroyed. But I think you're right in stating that that idea might never be possible. Every event that occurs in the world around us, and thus subsequently our personal memories, are so unique and rely on so many variables that the likelihood of ever recreating that memory is slim to none.
      On the other hand, science today still doesn't know exactly how memory works and is stored in our brains from a biochemical and electrical perspective. Perhaps with greater understanding, scientists could figure out a way to engineer the system for humanity?
      • thumb
        Apr 19 2013: Well, I cannot see any means by which a destroyed synapse can be restored.
        Let us suppose that the synapse itself could be regenerated .. but that is only the "house" if the original synaptic sensitivity is not also restored then it's a house with no one living in it.

        Now here's a thing - if every single synapse .. around 100 trillion? .. if every single one could be mapped for it's sensitivity, its parent neuron and its target neuron (we now have 300 trillion aspects).

        And then if that network could be copied .. then we would have that mind as it was at time of scanning .. but the scan would have to be instantaneous. Synaptic strengths are very dynamic .. the rate of change in them is graduated depending on its role in the entire scheme .. some change continuously, some are potentiated more and some get cemented in place .. these are the sodium calcium and myelin stages - that we know of .. then there are numbers of receptors . this tends to make it all continuous.

        But then .. we have a mind in context of a body - the specific senses and motor structures which are also subject to change.
        I suppose that such a mega-trillion database is possible. This is the basis of some of the "singularity" discussion .. we could have a person "printed" into a computer simulation where it could be held for download into a cloned body with a 3-d protein-printed brain .. but then this person is a snapshot - his original would have become something else in the interim.

        Here is where I go with all this: everything we understand and talk about .. our words, our deeds .. it is all in context of a self. When we say "read a mind" the subtext is "read a mind for the advantage of myself" .. that advantage might be benign or malignant .. but it is a function of the self who wants to read. There are 2 in the discussion, but the frame is just 1.
        We need to know more about self before we break the barriers between selves. Such a "reading of minds" might result in the loss of 2 to make 1.
        • thumb
          Apr 19 2013: Hey Mitch, Have you ever heard or read about a woman called Jean Boylan? A forensics sketch artist who rose to fame in the early 90's in the states, it was through her intuitive leap of connecting how we store our memories in a layered form of visual and scent with feelings but can become fragmented with time, especially with traumatic experiences. If she could interview a person early and counsel them she could retrieve with a high level of accuracy an almost pixel perfect image of an assailant from a victim.

          It was how she drew the image out, her techniques that made her one of the best for her time. Sadly she was never recognized for her contribution to the science and at the time it was still a mans world when she was dealing with uncooperative police and, i suppose because she was attractive, never really taken serious. I had her readers digest book but lost it and this is all i could find on her these days.

          http://articles.latimes.com/1994-01-12/news/vw-11017_1_forensic-art
      • thumb
        Apr 20 2013: I agree with you Lauren, that perhaps with greater understanding, scientists could figure out a way to engineer the systems. Science has made incredible progress in this field recently, and I have confidence that they are discovering more all the time.

        There are two types of synapse connections...chemical and electrical. They know that in some cases, "by altering the release of neurotransmitters, plasticity can be controlled in the presynaptic cell".

        "Currant FDA approved drugs support the communication process through two different mechanisms".

        It appears, from information that is available at this time, that they are moving forward, and I believe that anything is possible:>)

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synapse

        http://www.alz.org/research/science/alzheimers_disease_treatments.asp

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.