The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind
- Michio Kaku
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Paula Novash
- March 14, 2014
In a wonderfully lucid book, the author discusses growing knowledge of the brain to show how our minds may be headed for big changes.
Imagine yourself in a highly evolved future, dealing with an emotional upset, such as a tough breakup. Instead of meeting your best friend to rehash the relationship, you confide in an empathetic robot. After this avatar comforts you and tucks you into bed, she activates a system to record your dreams so you can analyze them later for post-breakup symbolism. (To ease your breakup-related stress, she even makes changes to those dreams while they are in progress.) And finally, to take a break from all the angst, you upload your consciousness to a supercomputer, leaving your physical body to rest.
Sound crazy? After reading Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, you may find these innovations closer than you think. Kaku has written an elegant and thought-provoking account of recent developments in brain scanning and technology. He presents an overview of advancements in neuroscience and physics, including breakthrough research in areas such as mental health, spirituality, paranormal phenomena, alien consciousness, and mind-body control. All of this will cause you to wonder if in the not-too-distant future, the power of our own minds will change our lives in ways we can barely imagine.
Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, and his facility for making complex subjects accessible has made him a popular speaker and author. (His bestsellers include Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future.) In the first section of Future of the Mind, you can see why: His image-filled descriptions of the biology of the brain and brain scanning and measurement tools are wonderfully informative and clear.
For instance, Kaku describes the brain as seen through a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, which uses a magnetic field and radio waves to provide images of internal organs: “Watching the dance of lights flickering in a MRI machine, one can trace the thoughts moving within the brain. It’s like being able to see the inside of a clock as it ticks.” (He also adds the fun fact that, while MRI is safe, “the magnetic field is powerful enough to send tools hurtling through the air at high velocity” if the machine is used improperly.)
After developing a “working theory of consciousness” in his first few chapters, Kaku describes a wide variety of brain research and its implications, including studies involving atomic technology “nanobots” that have the potential to zip through our bloodstreams, and futuristic methods to identify developing diseases and reverse damage from the aging process. He describes medications that have the potential to make us smarter and erase traumatic memories, and brain stimulation that causes individuals to believe they are connected with a divine source that reflects “their own cultural and religious language—terming it God, Buddha, a benevolent presence or the wonder of the universe.” Future of the Mind contains much, much more, and it’s all fascinating.
In the last part of the book, Kaku speculates about the future. He describes methods for reverse-engineering the brain and then discusses the possible consequences: While building a brain could give researchers a marvelous tool for curing mental illnesses, it also could provide the potential for immortality. Contacting alien civilizations, according to the research Kaku cites, seems likely sooner rather than later. But then we need to ask, “What do they want, and what will their consciousness be like?” Kaku seems thrilled by these potential events, but he also wants us to realize that they will necessitate ethical and moral decisions that will change us forever.
Kaku concludes that there may be two major ways to view our brains and their limitless potential. The first considers people as “just wetware, running software called the mind, nothing more or less,” so their “thoughts, desires, hopes and aspirations can be reduced to electrical impulses circulating in some region of the prefrontal cortex.” The second perspective, however, says that “conditions of the universe make consciousness possible.” Because these conditions are complex and changeable, there may well be some serendipitous magic to how our minds work. Kaku wonders whether humans would have turned out the same if a perfect copy of Earth had been put in motion 4.5 billion years ago, and he concludes that it’s unlikely. To further illustrate this viewpoint, Kaku quotes the Victorian biologist Thomas Huxley, who said, “How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin, when Alladin rubbed his lamp.”
In person Kaku is enormously appealing and a little bit of a character; check out this YouTube video to see him lecturing. His website lists his first profession as “Futurist,” and based on his writings and lectures, one feels that he’s the 21st-century embodiment of Emily Dickenson’s sentiment, “I dwell in Possibility.” After reading The Future of the Mind, you’ll dwell there, too.
Paula Novash writes articles, web copy, and literary nonfiction on topics ranging from IT to sushi and edits books, articles, and journals in fields that include medicine, linguistics, philanthropy, and neuroscience. She can be reached at www.paulanovash.com.