Neuroscience is a cool field. It’s getting cooler everyday, in fact, with technology capable of looking closely at the brain and it’s inner workings in action. With this ever-expanding technology and the study of neuroscience itself comes future possibilities of improvements in brain health, brain function, and just plain old knowledge about ourselves.
With improvement comes speculation on which direction we should take this newfound knowledge. How will this progress affect us morally? Socially? Existentially?
One of the recent heraldings of the neuroscience of the future is that it will be able to “read minds.” While I’m not sure exactly what is meant by mind-reading in this context, my safest conclusion is that someone will be able to be read by some machinery and basically be told what they were thinking, much like some sort of telekinetic psychic.
Well, technically, if we go by that definition, this is already happening. The machinery of the experimenters was able to literally “read the minds” of the participants in such a way as to be able to know what specific word they were thinking. Why does this not count as genuine mind-reading though? My guess is because in order to even read the mind, the machinery first had to learn the language each specific participant’s mind spoke in.
By identifying electrical patterns in each person’s brain as they focused on certain words, the computer was able to recognize that same pattern when the person thought of those words, thus being able to read their mind. But this is as far as the mind-reading will go. This initial pattern recognition would have to be done for each person before their mind could be read.
Why is this? Because the brain does not work like a computer. Memory is not a file storage type of system.
One cannot look at the brain, and at a particular neuron firing and say, “This, this is file storage for the memory of that embarrassing moment Jimmy had in preschool.” Memory, consciousness, and thinking in general have everything to do with the complicated interplay of the neuron’s firing, not in the attempt to pinpoint a certain spot that is the center.
And while the researchers have to deal with that interplay, they also have to deal with the specificity of it being Jane’s brain, or Bob’s brain. While brains across humans have similar parts which function in similar ways, the context of those functions differ. When I read the word “Illuminate” I think of an idea becoming clear in someone’s mind. When you or Dan or Dave or Barbara read the word, it could set off thoughts down a completely different route.
This is because the vast differences in our experience, differences which result in physical changes in the brain. But just looking at that end result cannot tell you about a person without “learning the language” of their brain.
It would be like taking two different people with developed muscles and trying to determine exactly how those muscles formed. One may have been through weightlifting while the other through a manual labor job. You wouldn’t know unless you knew their history.
I estimate that we will find that studying the brain is similar, that being able to read someone’s mind prior to knowing anything about them will be utterly impossible.
But I also believe that the mind-reading part isn’t even the coolest aspect, or even cool at all.
Mostly I’m interested in this:
“Each person’s brain patterns form a sort of ‘neural fingerprint’ that can be used to read out the ways they organize their memories through associations between words,” Manning said.
The techniques the researchers developed in this study could also be adapted to analyze many different ways of mentally organizing studied information.
“In addition to looking at memories organized by time, as in our previous study, or by meaning, as in our current study, one could use our technique to identify neural signatures of how individuals organize learned information according to appearance, size, texture, sound, taste, location or any other measurable property,” Manning said.
Such studies would paint a more complete picture of a fundamental aspect of human behavior.
Being able to pseudo-read someone’s mind means we are able to understand better how information gets stored and recalled in the brain. The complex interplay of those neuron’s could have a particular pattern across individuals while the content does not. However, this information would improve our understanding of memory on a grand scale.
While mind-reading may not be possible, the perks of having a society that is able to read minds seems to be few. The perks of having a society that is able to understand how knowledge and memory occurs exactly and how to use that information for its own gain is tremendous.
I recommend that the mind-reading aspect of neuroscience be downplayed in comparison to the ability to finally understand how you can remember almost anything.