The main argument: Up until 15 to 20 years ago the instruments and methods used to study the brain were still somewhat primitive. Since this time, however, advances in brain-scanning and brain-probing technology have gone into overdrive—as have the computers needed to make sense of the data from these new technologies. The deluge began in the early to mid 1990’s with the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, and it’s more powerful cousin the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, and it hasn’t stopped there. In addition to the MRI and fMRI, we now have a host of advanced sensing and probing technologies from the positron emission topography (PET) scan, to magnetoencephalography (MEG), to near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), to optogenetics, to the Clarity technique, to the transcranial electromagnetic scanner (TES), to deep brain stimulation (DBS) and more. In addition to these new scanning and probing technologies we have also advanced greatly in understanding how genes are expressed in the brain.
The result of these new advances is that we have learned more about the brain and how it works in the past 15 years than in all of history put together. And we are beginning to see real-world applications of this new understanding. For example, in the past decade we have learned to read the brain’s functioning to the point where we can now create rough images and video footage of thoughts and even dreams and imaginings; use the brain to directly control computers, and anything computers can control—including prosthetics (and even have these prosthetics send sensations back to the brain); implant and remove simple memories in the brain; create primitive versions of artificial brain structures; and also unravel at least some of the mysteries of mental illness and disease.
And this is just the beginning. Scientists continue to refine the scanners and probes that have recently been invented. What’s more, governments are beginning to put up real money to fund major projects designed to help solve the remaining mysteries of the mind. For example, in 2013 both the United States and the European Union announced significant funding for two ambitious projects whose ultimate goal is to give a full map, model and even simulation of the human brain.
Specifically, the American government contributed over $3 billion to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (or BRAIN) Initiative, while the European powers contributed over $1.5 billion for the Human Brain Project.
What this means is that we can look forward to a time when some of the early advancements we’ve made in understanding and manipulating the brain will reach full maturity. A time when we will interact with computers directly with our thoughts (and paraplegics will power exoskeletons directly with theirs); a time when we can share our thoughts, memories, dreams, and imaginings directly with others; a time when we can upload knowledge and skills directly into our brains; a time when we will have a full understanding of mental illness and disease—and the power to cure them.
And not only does the future of neuroscience promise these great feats, it also promises to help us develop the coping stone of all technologies: artificial intelligence. Indeed, while artificial intelligence has progressed in leaps and bound in recent years, it still remains fairly limited. A big part of this has to do with the fact that we have modeled our artificial intelligence machines based on how we think the mind should work, rather than on how it actually works. With our new knowledge of how the mind does work, however, the prospect of creating AI machines with human-level intelligence becomes ever more real.
The high point of the book is that Kaku gives a very nice overview of the latest developments in neuroscience, as well as where the field is headed next. The weak point of the book is that Kaku occasionally veers way of topic, and occasionally gets carried away on wild flights of speculative fancy (to give just one example, I wasn’t expecting, and didn’t appreciate, a full chapter of speculation about what alien intelligence—if it exists—might look like). Still, the book certainly contains a lot of very interesting and valuable information about the latest in brain science, and it definitely gets the imagination going.