On the Brain: Mind becomes machine
December 22nd, 2010
02:15 PM ET

On the Brain: Mind becomes machine

This week I'm excited about frontiers in brain enhancement, research on fear and phobias, and a potential new test for Alzheimer's.

You, Robot

If you've got some time during the holiday weekend to think about the future of the human species, take a moment to consider what it would mean to have your brain immortalized as a computer. Head over to Scientific American to check out this chapter about uploading your mind from Carl Zimmer's e-book "Brain Cuttings: 15 Journeys Through the Mind."

Zimmer delves into the science of the singularity, which refers to the potential moment when technology allows intelligence to surpass current human capabilities. Were this to happen, singularity theorists argue, computers would become self-aware, and human brains could be technologically enhanced and even preserved in a mind-machine fusion.

How far off are we? When it comes to machines taking over the world sci-fi style, we are not in immediate danger. But Zimmer interviews many serious scientists who are working toward enhancing the brain in various ways and who don't see the singularity concept as fanciful. In fact, as of this year, 30,000 people battling Parkinson's disease have had electrodes put in their brains to help deal with their condition, Zimmer writes.

And, of course, we are increasingly relying on computers to remember things for us.

The daredevil brain

In other brain news, it's possible to have no fear. No fear at all.

You may feel fearless in some situations, but some people don't even register the reaction of fear. A 44-year-old American woman cannot feel fear as a result of brain damage from a genetic disease called lipoid proteinosis, CBC News reports. Her amygdala, the part of the brain that alerts you about impending danger, has holes in it because of the disease.

At a pet store, scientists found that she willingly reached out to tarantulas and snakes, which commonly give people chills. She also said she felt entertained, rather than scared, by a haunted house, and didn't have strong fear responses to horror films. Further study of this patient may help scientists understand mental disorders such as post traumatic stress disorder better, researchers said.

Progress in Alzheimer's diagnosis

This year has brought a lot of discussion about detecting Alzheimer's disease early, and many children of Alzheimer's sufferers say they want to know their risk. Researchers at the Institute of Neurology at University College of London say they are getting even closer to being able to catch the earliest signs of Alzheimer's, BBC News reports.

The scientists focused on these indicators of Alzheimer's: "shrinkage of the brain and lower than normal levels of a protein, called amyloid, in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that bathes the brain and spinal cord," the BBC said.

It's important to note that this study, published in Annuals of Neurology, has not followed up with the participants for long enough to see if those predicted to get Alzheimer's actually develop it. Also, it involved a lumbar puncture, a procedure that gets that cerebrospinal fluid out of the spine with a needle, so it might not be as simple as you'd want. But other scientists are working on various types of brain scans for diagnosis as well.

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Jah8

    Carl Zimmer and his scientifically minded ilk are unaware of the 'religion of science' movement to which they are party. This 'research' is part of their immortality myth.
    At its heart the idea is not science – How would you ever know that another's awareness(consciousness) was perserved on an 'intelligent' computer? How would you know the computer you were interfacing with after the transfer was not just a unconscious simulation that 'parroted' back everything the old person would have said? Talk about a hypothesis that can never be tested.

    December 22, 2010 at 14:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joe

      At its basic form, we're all just parroting back things we've seen, heard, felt, and experienced... genius and creativity are simply parroting back in new ways. What really is new under the sun?

      December 22, 2010 at 19:27 | Report abuse |
    • Jah8

      In fact you know that you're more than parroting back things. You are 'aware/conscious' of what you do and say. It is the 'aware/conscious' part that they wish to preserve. How do they know that the 'aware/conscious' part is preserved?

      December 22, 2010 at 20:58 | Report abuse |
  2. Alchemist

    What A Waste, To Defy And Bound Mind To The Physical. Science Is Gonna Realize One Day That Mind Is Not Contained Within The Brain. And Find Out That Whole Universe Is From Mind Alone. Till Then, These Are All Just Science Projects For The Ignorant.

    December 22, 2010 at 14:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Will

    Unlike the Luddites in this room, I think brain-to-computer is a fascinating idea. Imagine a person whose body is so badly damaged or diseased they are trapped within themselves, this technology could give them a new lease on life. Their mind could be transferred to a computer and downloaded into a healthy clone body or placed into a completely synthetic form.

    December 22, 2010 at 16:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jah8

      There is nothing Luddite about my comment. There are many interesting philosophical/religious/artistic notions; including Zimmer's (and all the other folks who have shared the same idea over the past 50 years). The problem I have is trying to pass this notion under the radar as scientific. Rather it is a certain unquestioned assumption of what mind is (essence, spirit, self-awareness, conciousness – call it what you will) convolved into notions of future technology. It is, at its core, a religious assertion.

      December 22, 2010 at 17:36 | Report abuse |
  4. Peter Melzer

    It is Annals of Neurology.

    December 22, 2010 at 23:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Bob

    Mind is an abstract word.. What proof do we have of it! Can we measure it??? We are alll Robots! .. Until Science proves it otherwise we have no MINDS!! Goes double for Soul!!!

    December 22, 2010 at 23:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Alchemist

      Mind Has Been Interpreted For Thousands Of Years, Interpreted Only Because It Cannot Be Fully Defined.
      Its Interpretators Are Whom We Consider Holy And Also The Ones That Have Founded Every Division Of General Knowledge.
      Biology,Psychology, Physics, Mathematics And Music Are Some Of Them.
      Philosophy Is At The Root Of All Religions And Sciences.
      Philosophy Is Not What Can Be Hoped For Or Proved But What Can Be Learned And Understood With Experiences.
      It Is Perfectly Fine If A Individual Awaits For Science To Prove Everything, Or For Religion To Bring Forth A Savior.
      But We Ourselves Posses the Ability To Conquer Both And Rejoin Them For Our Own Personal Benevolent Purpose.
      We Believe To Have Definition Of Mind Or Soul, But These Are Just Interpretations From A Ancient Perspective That Has Been Lost In Translation And Robbed Of Its Essence.

      December 23, 2010 at 00:40 | Report abuse |
  6. Dr Bill Toth

    Consciousness and other than consciousness are the true final frontiers of exploration because they appear to be infinite whereas our oceans and terra firma are not. Live with Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

    December 23, 2010 at 07:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. 4whirledpeas

    Just a note, but I don't believe we have yet scratched the surface in our understanding of human potential.

    When we are born, our brains are ready to "absorb" the culture (the comprehensive intellectual, social, and emotional scope) of our surroundings...and then the brain uses that information to create the cognitive architectural structure that we will use to navigate our lives.

    Currently, regardless of the importance of the critical periods of zero to six (and then 6-12+) our cultural inclination has been to ignore its essential nature. The area a child is allowed to explore on their own has decreased by 90% in one generation. The amount of time spent in rigorous physical activity (known to benefit the nervous system, as well as the heart, lungs, etc.,) is less than ever before in history. Children also spend less time designing their own activities, creating roles and story lines, figuring out issues of fairness, problem solving, ....in other words...playing.

    I would think that before we consent to robotic chips being placed in our heads, that perhaps we should figure out how to better utilize the amazing piece of natural machinery that we already possess.

    Concerning both early childhood AND Alzheimers, the work of Dr. Maria Montessori is being found useful in both phases of life.

    December 27, 2010 at 14:27 | Report abuse | Reply

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