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What Will Happen to Our Minds in the Future?

Mind-reading machines! Telekinesis! In Michio Kaku’s new book our minds will be doing all kinds of cool things with gadgets very, very soon, but somehow this scientist misses the big questions about what we really know about consciousness and the mind.

03.02.14 11:45 AM ET

One of the great pleasures of diving into a new obsession—whether music, photography, carpentry, or any pursuit requiring skill and practice—is getting to play with the specialized toys. For many enthusiasts, in fact, the tools can become more of a turn-on than the trade. We all know this person: the collector of vintage guitars who rarely plays, the home cook with more pots than recipes. It’s an unhealthy impulse, most would admit. And amateurs aren’t the only ones who succumb to it.

In a January piece in Aeon Magazine, science writer Philip Ball identifies the dangers of “instrument-worship” among scientists. One of the problems with this tendency, he writes, is that “the machine becomes its own justification, its own measure of worth. Results seem ‘important’ not because of what they tell us but because of how they were obtained.”

This sort of gadget-centrism is at the heart of Michio Kaku’s new book The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind. No surprise here. After all, as a theoretical physicist, Kaku belongs to one of the most toy-obsessed disciplines in all of academic science. The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s biggest machine. And Kaku, a former contributor to The Daily Beast/Newsweek, is fond of recounting his misspent youth building cloud chambers and particle accelerators in his mom’s garage.

He is equally in awe of the various technologies currently being used to probe the workings of the human brain, what he calls the “the flood of new tools with acronyms like MRI, EEG, PET, CAT, TCM, TES, and DBS.” His latest book is a sensationalist account of how amazing these machines are and how much more amazing they will become in the future. As one might expect, it’s full of speculative leaps that start with a promising breakthrough in brain-scanning and end with Inception-like shared dream scenarios, mind-reading machines, and telekinetic typewriters. “One day,” he writes “we might routinely control objects around us with the power of our mind, download memories . . . create back-up copies of our brain” and so on. It is a sort of World’s Fair presentation of the future of brain research and the nifty gadgets it will give us. Phrases like “straight out of science fiction” and “the possibilities are endless” appear on almost every page.

For instance, he considers research underway at the University of California, Berkeley where patients sit for hours in a “state-of-the-art MRI machine, costing upward of $3 million” and are shown a selection of video clips. By analyzing the blood flow in the subject’s brain, a computer can determine roughly what clip the patient is viewing and create a rudimentary video representation of his or her visual experience. This is genuinely cool stuff. But it’s not enough for Kaku, who combines legitimate research with thoughts about cell-phone-sized MRI machines, to produce predictions that “at some point in the future, an MRI telepathy helmet might be possible.” It’s as if he’s made a generous calculation about how high-falutin he can be without deviating too uncomfortably from the actual science.

The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind By Michio Kaku 400 pages. Doubleday. $28.95.

Kaku even considers the privacy issues involved with such mind-reading technologies, concluding that a shield might be necessary to prevent your thoughts from getting into “the wrong hands.” His suggestion: “a telepathy shield” that “would consist of a thin metal foil around the brain.” Don’t throw away your tin foil hats.

It would be easy to cut down The Future of the Mind for being an exercise in public relations for an area of research that has already been hyped beyond public comprehension. But Kaku has made a second career out of this kind of boosterism, and it would be silly to expect anything different from him. We’re talking about the host of a national radio show called Science Fantastic – a phrase that tellingly echoes Jesse Pinkman’s infamous “yeah, science!” from the first season of Breaking Bad. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a little unironic enthusiasm about science.

No, what’s most bristling about Kaku’s treatment of this particular issue is how effectively he minimizes what is arguably the most rich and mysterious subject that scientists, philosophers, and psychologists have ever set their sights on. If he wanted to elicit “wow’s” with a popular romp about the mind, he could have stopped well short of downloadable memories.

Consider the issue of consciousness, which Kaku dispenses with in an early throat-clearing chapter. His own pet theory is that consciousness is “the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters . . . in order to accomplish a goal.” After elaborating on this rather unenlightening explanation of our every waking experience, Kaku declares that “now that we have a working theory of consciousness, the time has come to utilize it to understand how neuroscience will evolve in the future.” Glad we got that out of the way. On to consecutive chapters on telepathy and telekinesis.

Right there is where the book goes irretrievably astray. Instead of giving us his own, non-specialist view of consciousness, he could have spent a minute demonstrating how little agreement there is on the matter among people who actually study it. Conscious experience – a phenomenon that we are in intimate contact with all day, a process behind every thought, belief, sensation, and idea – lacks an explanation that a majority of experts can get behind. Climate change enjoys more of a scientific consensus. Is this not astonishing enough for Kaku that he has to resort to Star Trek references and discussions of the Matrix?

Teaching the controversy, as it were, would have forced Kaku to play on terrain that he’d rather avoid. At the very least, it would require him to admit that explaining the mind in purely physical terms is a fraught project for a variety of reasons.

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Philosopher David Chalmers has expressed the central challenge of understanding the mind with his distinction between the “easy problems” of consciousness—for instance, how does the brain process environmental stimuli?—and the “hard problem,” which he states as “why is all this processing accompanied by an experienced inner life?” Yet another notable philosopher of mind, Jaegwon Kim, has asked the question this way: “How can there be such a thing as consciousness in the physical world, a world consisting ultimately of nothing but bits of matter distributed over space-time behaving in accordance with physical law?”

Anyone who has wondered about the mind has confronted these kinds of issues in one way or another. The “explanatory gap” between the physical and mental, as philosopher Joseph Levine has called it, might not be unbridgeable, but it at least needs negotiating. For his part, Kaku bungles Chalmers’ formulation in a breezy section on artificial intelligence, and casts aside many of these concerns as pointless.

Nevertheless, attempts to deal with these issues continue to generate a great many interesting debates. One has to do with the location and character of consciousness. Kaku has little problem using “brain” and “mind” interchangeably. And, indeed, most of us probably assume that the mind is a product of processes that go on exclusively in the brain. But an emerging area of research is considering whether or not conscious experience is a kind of dynamic, full-body interaction with the environment. Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, has argued that we might be “thinking about consciousness the wrong way – as something that happens in us, like digestion – when we should be thinking about it as something we do, as a kind of living activity.”

That the project of comprehending the mind has enough room to accommodate such iconoclastic theories is evidence of how unsettled the issue is. Kaku has little taste for unorthodox views or nagging objections, as they muddy his vision of tomorrowland. But as a biographer of Albert Einstein, he of all people should appreciate the importance of insights from those willing to challenge cherished views and introduce new frameworks. What’s so incredible about the future of the mind isn’t that we’re just a few thousand man hours away from some really impressive new toys, but that, after all this time, we’re still not sure where the research will take us.