The Biological Thinking Machine

Get ready, human beings, to drink the brew now simmering in the kettles of neuroscience. Last night’s 60 Minutes, narrated by Leslie Stahl, reported on the work going on at a couple of neuroscience labs. In case you haven’t been paying attention, neuroscience has come a long way from playing around with twitching frog legs. Now, using computers and MRI’s, neuroscientists can precisely locate the multiple parts in the brain where thoughts are occurring and are moving toward understanding how to predict them.

At Carnegie Mellon, for example, researchers Marcel Just and Tom Mitchell conducted what Just cheerily identified as “thought identification” research. “Our brain is a biological thinking machine,” he said to a clearly worried Stahl.

In their experiments, Just and Mitchell gave their subjects ten specific objects to think about (half of them tools like a screwdriver or hammer, half of them dwellings, like a castle or igloo) while undergoing a brain scan. Recording and analyzing their brain activity patterns, the researchers located the various parts of the brain where the specific thoughts about these objects had occurred. The most startling moment in the program occurred when the researchers conducted an instant analysis of a staff member of 60 Minutes. The computer was able to correctly identify all 10 things she had been thinking about, in their proper order, during her MRI.

Meanwhile, at the Bernstein Institute in Berlin, a researcher who’s studying the problem of intention asked a group of subjects to make a simple decision — to either subtract or add two numbers that they would be given afterward. The researcher was able to figure out what they had decided to do by analyzing the different pattern of brain activity generated by addition compared to that generated by subtraction in the part of the brain that controls intentions. In other words, he correctly figured out their intentions.

Neuroscience is still in its relative infancy, but even so, in the not too distant future (within the century, for sure), society will be forced to decide whether people should have their brains scanned before boarding a plane or submit to brain scans to find out if they’re telling the truth. Perhaps parents will make it a practice to drag little Johnny over to the home brain scanner to see if he’s telling the truth about whether or not he did his homework.

The new knowledge about brains will necessarily exacerbate the polarization between “science” people and “humanities” people famously delineated by C.P. Snow in The Two Cultures (1956). There Snow rued the fact that people had split into two categories — science and nonscience types who could no longer talk to one another. (He laid special blame at the feet of humanities scholars for not knowing a damn thing about science.) Since then, the gap has only widened.

New advances in understanding the brain will add another dimension to Snow’s gap. For scientists, the pursuit of the scientific truth about the goopy machine that is our brain will be a glorious, thrilling and worthy challenge, done for its own sake. For nonscientists, on the other hand, there will be those who find it entertaining, and those more like Leslie Stahl — worried.

Once neuroscientists can see what we think, and where and how we do it, and even what we plan to do with our thoughts, once we’ve thought them, can it be much more than a hop, skip and jump to ferreting out the deepest lies, deceptions, illusions and delusions that spur the imagination to its heights and give birth to our ideals and our art, and even our private little selves?

As goopy machines subject to the binary diagnosis of computers, we’ll no doubt hum along more perfectly than ever before. Yet one can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a rub to all of this. If we should indeed conquer our brains to the point that we can control them, what dreams are there that will never come?

(Brainstorm illustration incorporating images by Flickr users rooneg, brain_blogger, and Sarah G)

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