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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 22 2013: Hi Lauren,

    Thank you for this interesting topic. I have some questions/issues/problems/worries that I'd like to post:

    1. Neural prosthetics, a positive development in itself, aside for a minute... Let's concentrate on the brain and brain alone... Do people with different kind of dementia want to have their memories installed back? How do you determine if they do or do not if regular contact with such patients is obviously limited? If you, by some means and methods, can determine that they do want this - which memories should you chose? One should never forget that some studies show that the mentally handicapped tend to be the happiest people on the planet, if not made aware of their handicap or otherness by cruel means of isolation or bullying... I'm referring to studies on autism and Down syndrome, but not only that, I'm also thinking about my personal observation of my 92-year-old grandmother with severe Alzheimer... She would throw herself at a pile of candy as a 5-year-old would and 10 minutes later she would... recite poems in Greek and Latin that she had to learn as a young girl at a border school in 1920's... While doing all that she seemed happy, although she did not remember or was able to recognise her children, she did not know who I was or that I was the daughter of her 9th son... Would she be happier if she could remember WWII anew? On the other hand, maybe downloading her memories would benefit historical and sociological studies. But would it benefit her to get them back?

    2. To find out whether inserting memories, reading minds or having a backup copies of memories is beneficial, you probably need to consult not only doctors, psychologists or sociologists, but also philosophers and sci-fi writers.

    Best wishes.
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      Apr 23 2013: Anna brings up some great points!

      experiments involving memory especially have a lot of gray area. Can we remove someone's bad memories if it will make them happier (PSOD?) can we download memories of a witness in a murder trial? Of course these questions arent so important until such things are possible, but as Lauren states, this technology may very well be on the horizon!
      With the Brain Mapping project proposed by President Obama, we will surely see very big advancements connected to brain activity and it will remain to be seen what the ramifications may be and how humanity responds.

      Maybe Alison is right and its time to break out the aluminum foil hats.

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