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The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

Tuesday, December 9, 2014  
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By Dr. Michio Kaku

Reviewed by Donna Lamberti
{Headlines} February 2014

In The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, Dr. Michio Kaku explores the part of the universe that remains among the most mysterious of all: the human brain. Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at The City College of New York and author of the best-selling Physics of the Impossible, offers a clear and understandable guide to the latest research into the mind and what that research means for the not-too-distant future.

Kaku divides the book into three major parts, each fairly lengthy in its own right. The first part is similar to other recent books on the brain and its workings such as Brain Rules by John Medina (click here for the SAIS Review) or Social by Matthew D. Lieberman (click here for the SAIS Review). In the first section, Kaku discusses the latest scientific findings in terms of the physiology and psychology of the human brain, including his own definition of “consciousness.” The second part of the book offers descriptions of the newest technologies, technologies that are already vastly changing not only how we understand the brain, but also what we can do with it. For instance, in this second section, Kaku discusses technologies in existence today that are assisting in such endeavors as mind reading, videotaping or recording thoughts and dreams, and telekinesis via computer or robotic technologies. Finally, in the third section, Kaku plays futurologist. Taking into account all the latest research in the areas of physics, biology, and psychology, Kaku makes predictions on what we might reasonably expect in the near future.

A significant portion of the book details how in the last 15 years scientists have gained more insights into the workings of the brain than in all the previous centuries combined. Kaku rightly claims that these discoveries have more to do with physics than biology, for the technologies that have allowed for us to understand the brain in more detail than ever before come to us from the world of physics. These technologies include everything from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to the positron emission topography (PET) scan. Without these machines that were first used in the physics laboratory, our understanding of how the brain works would still be in the proverbial dark ages.

We continue to owe the science of physics a great deal when it comes to advances in the study of the brain and the mind-body connection. Paralyzed individuals can now move artificial limbs through the use of an exoskeleton that is directly controlled by an individual’s thoughts through an EEG machine mounted in a helmet. Similarly, individuals can now control video games through the power of thinking. Perhaps most unbelievably scientists have managed to erase a mouse’s memory and then reprogram it with new memories. Reading about these advances was mind boggling enough for someone not versed in the very latest scientific experimentation, but then Kaku continues to marvel the reader with his predictions about what is just around the corner.

Imagine a future in which human memories are recorded and exchanged like videotapes. Imagine our consciousness living forever even when our bodies decay and die because our consciousness has been downloaded onto a machine, a premise that is at the heart of the new film Transcendence starring Johnny Depp. Or what about video games or movies that have embedded within them sensory experiences like smells and tastes, allowing the audience a fuller experience than ever before? And what if the “holodeck” from Star Trek was no longer science fiction but a reality? Imagine moving through a virtual world or perhaps traveling to a distant real world and being able to feel objects in that world as if they were real. As much as these ideas seem nothing more than fantasy, Kaku argues they are closer to reality than we think.

Part of the reason that Kaku thinks these possibilities are eminent has to do more with government than science. While scientists continue to design new technologies and test their hypotheses in the laboratory, governments are supporting their work by funding major projects. In 2013, the United States and the European Union both announced that they would fund projects that aimed to map and model the human brain in more detail than ever before. The U.S. government allocated over $3 billion to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which hopes to essentially reverse engineer the human brain. With this kind of support, brain research is advancing at unprecedented rates, and things that once seemed impossible are now both possible and probable.

Perhaps the area that seems to have the most potential for the K-12 classroom involves the latest research on memory and what it means to learn a skill or remember knowledge. If Kaku is right in thinking that we will one day be able to upload and download memories as well as knowledge and skills directly into our brains, this will fundamentally change what it means to learn, what it means to think. I am reminded of The Matrix movie when Keanu Reeves’s character, Neo, “downloads” the skill of kung fu. In a matter of moments, his brain has essentially been rewired and he has a new skill at his disposal. But did he “learn” kung fu? I think most educators, perhaps most people in general, would argue that learning involves individual choice and effort. If we can simply download memories and knowledge directly into our brain, both choice and effort are removed from the equation.

Kaku, however, is less interested in these more philosophical questions. For the author, the brain is more or less a machine. Like all machines, the human brain, for Kaku, is best understood through the lens of engineering, and as a physicist, this is the lens Kaku understandably uses. We can “solve” the riddles of the human brain by seeing the brain clearly in terms of its physical properties, and by manipulating it the same way we manipulate our computers. While this might appeal to other scientists, it is less appealing to the non-scientist as it does not answer questions about the differences between brain, mind, and soul. 

When I briefly discussed this book with my students, they had a hard time wrapping their brains around the ideas Kaku describes, especially things like telekinesis. Whether this was because they were learning about these ideas secondhand through my own poor translation or because some of the ideas were so advanced that they were difficult to fathom, I do not know for sure. I do know that my students focused more on the benefits that such scientific advances might bring rather than any pitfalls. When I mentioned some of the possible downsides, the students were quick to dismiss them, preferring to focus on the upside. I was left wondering if they were simply choosing to be optimistic or really could not fully see some of the more nuanced philosophical questions that the new science raised.

Perhaps it is not surprising that a book with such a futuristic outlook brings to mind popular films of the fantasy or science fiction variety. In addition to bringing to mind the movies Transcendence and The Matrix, another popular film came to my mind: Jurassic Park. Specifically, as I read The Future of the Mind, I could not help but think of the line from the film delivered by Jeff Goldblum: “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.” (Emphasis mine.) Scientists are on the verge of incredible discoveries that will give them the ability to control our brains in ways that few fully understand. Others will need to come alongside the scientists and ask the hard questions about the difference between being able to do something, and deciding whether or not to act on that ability. To be fair, Kaku does spend some time, albeit only briefly, addressing the more troubling issues related to the scientific advances he discusses in the book. It will be left to others to raise and discuss these questions in more depth.


 

Donna Siebenthaler is a History Teacher at UMS-Wright Preparatory School in Mobile, AL.  She can be reached on Twitter at @donnalamberti or via email at dlamberti@ums-wright.org.

 

 

 


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