Book Review: The Future of the Mind

On April 2, 2014, President Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, with projected funding of over $100 million. This seems well and good, but then I found the largest portion—$50 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). I have respect for DARPA, but also I’m also concerned about “dual use,” where sinister intent hides under public good. Recall the money wasted by the CIA and Department of Defense (DOD) on mind control, brainwashing, and other military-related projects during the 1970s. More recently, the military attempted to develop robot soldiers, tanks, and trucks in the ’90s. These were not considered successful.

Two months later, California announced a billion dollar initiative with similar goals called the California Blueprint for Research to Advance Innovations in Neuroscience (Cal-BRAIN). Cal-Brain advertises grants of $70 million ($68 million private and $2 million public).1 For example, UC San Diego’s Center for Brain Activity Mapping is expected to use part of the funds to kick start a project to map the connectome.

On July 9, a report in The New York Times announced a $40 million initiative by America’s DOD to study direct brain recording to develop treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and closely related epilepsy.2

This activity indicates that brain research is now in vogue. Feeling the need to catch up, I responded to an advertisement for a new book by Prof. Michio Kaku, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind.3 After all, I’d enjoyed his book, Physics of the Future (see review at http://www.americanlaboratory.com/Blog/161930-Book-Review-The-Physics-of- the-Future/).

Prof. Kaku (City University of New York) uses his background in physics and host of human connections to examine the current state-of-the-art, and then extrapolate decades to centuries into the future. His academic specialty is theoretical physics, including quantum mechanics, which gives him a clear vision into anticipated advances such as quantum computing and ways to use wormholes to break the speed of light barrier in communication. These may also provide portals into other universes, which he believes exist.

The first few chapters of The Future of the Mind examine the state-of-the-art in neuroscience today. We scientists are struggling with using indirect techniques with insufficient resolution to tease out what is going on at the molecular level. Yes, we know a bit about neurons and synapses, but we are missing information on their organization and function until we get to major regions where MRI can provide functional maps indicating activity of various brain parts. Brain deformities also provide insight into the behavior of individuals. This is as macro as differentiating between left and right hemispheres and problems that occur when the interconnection is disrupted, as in savants.

Subsequent chapters address the limits of the human mind, particularly with how to improve it. Dr. Kaku does not see much hope for another major advance in human brain power. He describes the left‒right hemisphere deformity that seems to exist in savants, but later in the chapter he seems to dismiss this as a possibility for improved brainpower.

In my experience, random breakthroughs in performance, such as super columns in HPLC, simply show that things can be much better, if we learn the details. If you observe it, then you know that the nirvana exists. The question is how to access it routinely. In nature, if greatly improved function confers practical advantages, then evolution will pull in that direction. I have difficulty with the notion that the human brain is the best that can be done. My view: We are just at an early stage in constant evolution.

One chapter late in the book examines free will. A well-functioning mind thinks of the action before it is processed into signal-triggering actions. In damaged brains, the review process can be lacking, which leads to impulsive behavior. In extreme cases, individuals may act without consideration of the consequences. This has ramifications in deterrence-based behavior control as practiced in our legal system. I wondered if this contributes to the large percentage of America’s prison population (~40%) that is mentally impaired.

Another reflection: Kaku notes that the human brain weighs only 1.3 kg or so, and can process and remember vast quantities of data. Plus, it is able to anticipate and respond with compassion. Both are almost unique to higher mammals such as dogs and even more observable in humans. The best digital computers cannot keep up for energy efficiency, and they can’t anticipate or imagine or feel emotions. Digital computers have difficulty responding or adjusting to touch, feel, and fragility.

Consciousness is a major topic worming its way throughout many chapters of the book, starting with the basic, “What is consciousness?” Meanings for consciousness in my Word dictionary are: “Awareness of surroundings or particular issue, shared feelings and beliefs, somebody’s mind, same as conscious.” It seems to be a mental state, but what is that? How do you measure it?

Prof. Kaku points out that dreams are somewhat easier to define and are essential for survival. Each of us spends about two hours dreaming per day. Apparently, the mind can adsorb just so much, and then needs to go offline to digest it. For retention and clarity, one often needs to “sleep on it.” MRIs show that the brain map of dreams is similar to learning a new task. Perhaps this need for sleep explains why inquisitors use sleep deprivation as a form of torture to stress the subject, thereby possibly advancing their goals.

Dreams act on recent experiences, as reported by August Kekulé, who attributed dreams for his vision of molecular orbitals of unsaturated carbon‒carbon bonds that is responsible for resonance stabilization benzene, which we chemists call “aromaticity.”

However, having once been a young male, I am impressed that sexual drives are only mentioned once by Prof. Kaku, and that was related to dogs. One’s hormone- induced life is an important segment of neural activity. To exclude sex from consideration seems to be a major omission.

There are many take-home messages from the book. Mine are:

  • The human brain is exceedingly complex, perhaps bordering on incomprehensible
  • Digital computers will have difficulty modeling our brain since the architecture and function are so different
  • Human capabilities such as anticipation, imagination, and creativity will continue to be key differentiators between in vivo and in silico information technology.

If you anticipate being involved in the various brain research projects, I think you will find Prof. Kaku’s book a “must read.” His 11 pages of notes and references facilitate access to the primary literature. The technical background he offers concisely explains the state-of-the-art. He uses this to launch into prognostication of future developments.

These predictions will certainly be useful in stimulating scientific discussions, which is how science advances. Who knows? They might lead to a grant or two.

References

  1. Anon. Cal-BRAIN and UC San Diego: at the forefront of brain research. The New York Times; Jun 29, 2014; p A11.
  2. Carey, B. Probing brain’s depth, trying to aid memory. The New York Times; Jul 9, 2014; pp 1A & ff; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/09/health/probing-brains-depth- trying-to-aid-memory.html
  3. Kaku, M. The Future of the Mind; Doubleday, 2014 ISBN 978-0-385-53082-8.

Robert L. Stevenson, Ph.D., is Editor, American Laboratory/Labcompare; e-mail: rlsteven@yahoo.com.

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