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: Fascinating question and topic Lauren!

    As you say..."As we learn more about the "language" of the nervous system", and all the other interconnected body/mind systems, it is interesting to speculate what science may discover.

    Are you familier with the TED talk by Christopher DeCharms? He speaks about a real time MRI with which a person can observe the brain function and with their thoughts, actively participate in changing some of the neural patterns.


    It seems like this technology, and some of the other technology you have mentioned would be very valuable to the evolution of humans. Like anything, however, it could possibly be misused.

    In addition to advanced science and technology, I believe when we use all our senses and functions, including logic, reason, intuition, instinct, etc., we can sometimes "feel" some things about other people. So we may not be able to feel exactly everything a person is thinking or feeling. However, with practice, open mind and heart, we certainly can intuit some things about people.
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      Apr 19 2013: HI Colleen,
      thanks for your contribution to the conversation!
      I agree with you that if people are aware of their surroundings - they can gain intuition about other people. i don't think that that's necessarily mind reading, as I was trying to explain to carolyn below, but rather think that that's us using our previous experiences to come to conclusions and judge the situation that we're in right now. The way we act is so dependent on our previous experiences, so I believe that having intuition about other people is really our brains comparing the present situation to others that we've seen in the past in order to come to some conclusion as to what that person could be doing.
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        Apr 19 2013: You are welcome Lauren.

        I don't think I said that intuition is mind reading. Intuition, as defined, is ..."immediate apprehension or cognition; knowledge or conviction gained by intuition; the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference".

        If we use our "previous experiences to come to conclusions and judge the situation", I suspect that we would be applying cognition WITH evident rational thought and inference, so it would not be considered intuition.

        The way we act is NOT always "dependent on our previous experiences.....unless.......that is how we choose to act.

        Based on the definition, I do not perceive intuition to be based on "our previous experiences to come to conclusions and judge the situation".

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