The last frontier on this planet is the human mind. In his fascinating book The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku discusses the attempts of researchers to map and understand that unknown but extremely important part of every living animal. Talking in terms that we common people can grasp is a well-known gift of Dr. Kaku who is a frequent guest on various TV programs. You may question whether or not a theoretical physicist is qualified to write such a book since it is out of his field, but he has obviously gone to great length to research the subject, and quotes many experts as he takes us through this enlightening work.
The topics he covers include a general discussion of how the brain is structured; the nature of consciousness; the likelihood that we will one day be able to read a person’s thoughts; how memories are formed, and how they are removed; the awesome challenge of trying to map the neurons in the brain; changes in the brain after head injuries; artificial intelligence; and what sort of intellects visitors from other planets might exhibit.
Here are just a few of the things that I learned as I read:
- The human brain is extremely complex, so scientists are looking at simpler animals like fruit flies to gain basic knowledge of how a brain functions.
- There are billions of neurons in the human brain, and it is remarkable that the wiring of these neurons (which connect to one another) is correctly completed in most people.
- Damaged or incorrectly wired neurons could be the cause of many forms of mental illness, and could explain why, for instance, some people take pleasure in inflicting pain on others. This leads to questions about whether or not we really have free will.
- Researchers are using MRIs to see which areas of the brain “light up” when we see and hear different things (the music of Mozart versus hard rock, for instance), and when we have pleasant and unpleasant thoughts. They are also trying to determine where we store information that is received by our senses.
- Some people have a “photographic memory.” They can remember everything they read, and can quote verbatim (complete with page numbers) from the books where they read what they remember. Others can remember every event of every day of their lives for many years in the past. There is some thought that a specific gene causes us to remember things and another than allows us to forget. In people who remember everything, the gene that removes memories from our brains may not function properly. Forgetting may be the brain’s way of removing unnecessary clutter, and the way we reduce or eliminate the painful memories of traumatic events.
- As we discover more and more planets that may support life, scientists are speculating on what other life forms might be like. Would they have developed in the same way that we did over millions of years, or would they have followed a totally different evolutionary course? If animal evolution on Earth had a “re-do” would it follow the same path that it took the first time?
One of the most interesting topics in the book deals with scientists trying to map the human brain and to use computers to simulate it. Kaku mentions that the largest computer in the world is IBM’s Blue Gene computer. It has 147,456 processors whereas the computer you’re using to read this post probably has only one. Scientists estimate that it would take a city block of these computers, and a river of water to cool them in order to simulate a single human brain. “It is remarkable,” Dr. Kaku writes, “that a gigantic, city-size computer is required to simulate a piece of human tissue that weighs three pounds, fits inside your skull, raises your body temperature by only a few degrees, uses twenty watts of power, and needs only a few hamburgers to keep it going.” Remarkable indeed!
Dr. Kaku writes extensively about robots in his book. He discusses present day robots, and what robots might be like in the future. And of course he talks about the possibility that robots might learn to think for themselves, and one day take over the world and destroy us. I recently read a remarkable play about exactly this idea. The play, titled R. U. R. (for Rossum’s Universal Robots) was written in 1920 by Karel Ĉapek, a Czech writer. Almost 100 years ago Ĉapek coined the word “robot” (actually the word was suggested to him by his brother Josef), and explored the idea that we would accidentally invent something that would destroy us.
Unlike the metal robots that we normally think of, Rossum’s robots are made of flesh, bones, organs, and blood just like humans. However, they are simplified for manufacturing purposes so that they are not complete, fully functional human beings. And they lack “souls.” That is, they have no emotions, or empathy for human beings or anything else – including other robots. Notably, Ĉapek explores a number of deep issues in his play including whether or not it is good for humans to be completely free from the need to work.
I highly recommend both Dr. Kaku’s book, and Karel Ĉapek’s play. And if you enjoy Dr. Kaku’s gift for making complex science simple, you should give his radio show, Science Fantastic, a try. You can listen to segments of it here.