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: Lauren, Wow, you placed a lot of thoughts into this one conversation. I immediately thought of Aldous Huxley and his book Brave New World. I forget the ladies name but there was a TED speaker on Are We Liers. She identifies many signs and signals to watch for. In law enforcement and prison work we recognize many danger signals that suspects exhibt. Just because a person does "X" mean that he is going to do "Y" ... these are signals / signs / indicators.

    As a young person I worked in a mental hospital for a summer. The trend is for people to "drop off" a "sick" person and never return. Society is ok with that. Out of sight .. out of mind. I am not for sure that to "fix" some of these people is a high priority.

    We are facing a very high percentage of "crack babies" and other drug related illnesses ... but the liberal push to legalize drugs is gaining strength.

    On a MASH show .. the boss said that "We spend millions on finding new ways to blow people up and nothing in learning how to put them back together".

    Perhaps your generation can find a better balance and approach in helping man kind.

    I wish you well. Bob.

    P.S. I do not want to read anyone mind. I may see the real person and ruin the love and trust I have in the one I like and respect. No way to limit it to only reading your mind on a good day. We all have bad days and make wrong first impressions. Do you want someone to judge you on that day or that thought.

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