TED Conversations

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 19 2013: Hi Lauren!

    Thanks for your question. I actually find it pretty scare to think of the consequences of mind-reading. I think a big portion of the beauty of life lies in the concept that it is unpredictable, especially when it comes to human interactions. If we produce a technology that enables us to read other people's minds, well I think that would be a great loss. I think it would prevent us from connecting with others in a very genuine way. Everything would be known, and therefore there would be no secrets, no ambiguities. Personally, I think this would hinder the way we live our lives.

    To think about "inserting" memories or ideas into people's brain is even scarier. This can be used as a tool for brainwashing and a lot of negativity can result in this.

    I do think there are some positive aspects to this potential advancement. For example, as you stated, it would be incredible for patients with dementia.
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      Apr 23 2013: Hadar,

      I like the things that you mentioned above, however, I don't think that you are fully considering the amazing advances this sort of technology will have in the medical field. As Lauren addressed, people suffering from dementia and memory loss will be provided an opportunity to remember their past! How incredible of an opportunity would that be for them! I've had the opportunity to witness a relationship between a close friend of mine and his grandfather who unfortunately suffered from Alzheimer's towards the end of his life, and all I can remember my friend saying was that he wished his grandfather recognized who he was. With advancement in technology, I strongly believe, if used properly and only in these types of circumstances, could be revolutionary and heartwarming to thousands of families across the world. Maybe because I witness this experience first hand, but watch any movie or read any book or any personal experience where a character suffers from Alzheimer's and imagine how much you'd be fixing with this technology! Think about it...

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