Synopsis: It’s amazing that in the 21st century, science knows so much about all of the organs of the body save one: the brain. We talk to a scientist and author about the unbelievable abilities of the brain, how memories help us predict the future, where dreams are located, how brain injury can sometimes make someone a genius, and how research into brain function is opening up new areas of understanding the mind and its possibilities.
Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Dr. Michio Kaku, physicist, professor of theoretical physics City College and City University of New York, co-founder of string theory, and author of The Future of the Mind: The scientific quest to understand, enhance, and empower the mind.
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The Future of the Mind
Marty Peterson: The human mind has always stymied scientists with its complexity and its flexibility. It houses our memories, dreams, and intelligence and can lead us up a road of virtue or down into the depths of hell. Some people use their minds to create fantastic flights of fantasy that captivate the world in books and movies; others who have sustained serious head injuries can play a difficult piano concerto perfectly having only heard it once. Yes, the mind is a wonderful thing, and so is the brain that houses it. Yet for centuries, it’s been the least understood organ of the body.
Michio Kaku: The two greatest mysteries in all of nature, first of all is the origin of the universe, that is what’s out there in outer space, and the second is inner space, what’s sitting on your shoulders.
Marty Peterson: That’s Dr. Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City College and City University of New York, and author of the book, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind.
Michio Kaku: The reason why it’s so complicated is because the brain consists of a hundred billion neurons. That’s as many stars s there are in the Milky Way, each neuron is connected to 10,000 other neurons, so it’s been like a black box for thousands of years. But now in the last fifteen years we’ve learned more about the brain than in all of human history. This is amazing! We can now talk about telepathy, telekinesis, recording memories, uploading memories, recording dreams, things that were once the stuff of science fiction are now becoming science fact.
Marty Peterson: The first thing we need to understand about the brain is “consciousness.” Kaku says he has a definition that breaks this concept down into numerical measurements.
Michio Kaku: Consciousness to me is constantly creating a model of where you are in space, where you are with respect to other humans, and where you are with respect to time. So for example a thermostat, which registers the temperature of a room and adjusts it, a thermostat has one feedback loop and I call that the smallest unit of consciousness. A flower may have ten units of consciousness because it has the ability to monitor water, sunlight, the direction of gravity. A reptile may have maybe a hundred or so feedback loops because it has to know its location in space if it’s going to hunt prey in a swamp. And then you have social animals like monkeys. They have the next level of consciousness because they have to understand where they are in the tribe, whether they’re top dog, underdog, whether they’re in the middle someplace. They have to know emotions because they have to understand their ranking in society. And then, we have humans. We have the highest level of consciousness, which allows us to predict the future.
Marty Peterson: It’s our ability to predict what will happen tomorrow, and that there even is a tomorrow, that separates us from the animals.
Michio Kaku: Our brains are constantly day dreaming, we’re constantly simulating the future. Most of the time our brain is asking the question, “what if?” What if I do this? What if I do that? That is the bulk of our consciousness. So we have the highest level of consciousness because we deal in the world of time. Animals do not. Animals do not have a sense of tomorrow, animals do not plan ahead. If animals hibernate it’s because they have sensors, which pick up the temperature of the air. They don’t consciously say, “I have to pack my clothes, I have to get ready, store acorns, and get ready for winter time.” Our brains are prediction machines.
Marty Peterson: Kaku says that memories play a big role in our being able to predict the future. Brain science has progressed to the point where we can scan the brain to see where memories are stored in humans.
Michio Kaku: Some scientists believe that the whole purpose of memory is to allow us to project into the future. Now, when you brain scan animals you don’t see this. You don’t see this large memory storage allowing you to daydream into the future. Most animals live pretty much day by day. Now you can actually demonstrate this by turning a human into an animal of sorts. There was once a person who had an operation on his brain and they accidentally cut his hippocampus. He relived the same memories over and over again, just like Groundhog Day with Bill Murray or 50 First Dates with Drew Barrymore. He would forget. He would greet you in the morning, shake your hand, and you know, a few minutes later he’d forget and shake your hand all over again. That’s the world that animals live in because they have a very limited memory and they don’t project into the future.
Marty Peterson: Looking into the workings of the brain with PET scans and MRI’s and manipulating it with EEG technology enables scientists to see what’s going on inside our minds in real time. Kaku says that using this information along with computer technology has brought mental telepathy and telekinesis, that is moving objects with the mind, out of the realm of science fiction and into the real world to help severely disabled individuals.
Michio Kaku: For example, Stephen Hawking, my colleague the great cosmologist, he’s totally paralyzed, but he can move objects around him because the right frame of his glasses has a brain sensor. Next time you see him on television look at this right glass very carefully, you’ll see an EEG sensor on it which picks up brainwaves, from his brain, then connects it to a laptop, which allows him to type. We can now put a chip in people’s brains who are totally paralyzed, and they can now read e-mails, write e-mails, surf the web, operate their wheelchair, because they’re totally paralyzed, they can move a mechanical arm, we’re now putting exoskeletons on them. The military wants to take the veterans of the Iraq and Afghan War, put a chip in their brains so they can control an exoskeleton, so they can move like a normal person. So we now have the ability to take the brain, the pure thoughts of the brain, and allow the brain to control household appliances, control computers, and they can do anything you can do, on a laptop computer, and it’s all done electronically.
Marty Peterson: Using computers to enhance the lives of the disabled hearkens back to a long-held scientific belief that the brain, itself, is a computer.
Michio Kaku: We now realize that we made a mistake 50 years ago thinking that the brain with a simple computer. You see, a computer has a central processor, a Pentium chip, programming, Windows software, an operating system, subroutines, the brain has none of that. The brain has no programming, it has no subroutine, it has no Pentium chip, no central processor. The brain we now realize is a learning machine. It rewires itself after learning every task, but your laptop today is just as stupid as it was yesterday. Your laptop never learns anything at all, and that’s what makes the brain so superior. Even though we can’t do calculus and can’t do addition very well, which a laptop computer can do, our brain can learn very complex tasks simply by making mistakes.
Marty Peterson: Just like a baby learns. In fact, Kaku says that engineers are now using this concept to create the next generation of robots.
Michio Kaku: Look, on Mars we have the Mars rover. The Mars rover is basically a baby bumping into things, learning how to navigate on the surface of Mars. So people who build robots now use the bottom up approach, like a baby bumping into things rather than the top down approach, which is to program all the lines of walking, all the lines of logic. That top-down approach, which dominated for 50 years, the scientific movement, was considered too hard, and we’ve sort of given up on that approach.
Marty Peterson: Computers can do many tasks that the average human can’t, such as work out complex mathematical problems at lightening speed, or serve up thousands of facts in the blink of an eye. Some people, however, also have fantastic abilities due to an injury in their brains. We call them savants.
Michio Kaku: It was once thought that in order to have these enormous computational and music abilities you had to have autism, with an IQ of maybe 80. You could barely hold a job, you were considered mentally retarded, but you had these fantastic mathematical abilities. There’s a new thinking now, because certain people who are hit in the head, the left side of their brain sometimes automatically start to have these fantastic mathematical abilities. One child was accidentally shot through the left part of his brain with a bullet, another person hit his head on a swimming pool, also the left side of his body, and they became mathematical savants. So we think that autism triggers damage to the left part of their brain, which then unleashes this enormous mathematical power.
Marty Peterson: Kaku says that an amazing result of this phenomenon is a mural at Kennedy Airport in New York City.
Michio Kaku: The New York City Harbor as seen by a savant who went on a helicopter ride just once, and he drew the entire panorama of New York City Harbor building for building, window for building, from memory. That is astounding! And that’s the capabilities of these people. He’s a normal person, and again it’s because of injury to the left temporal lobe that induced this strange affect.
Marty Peterson: One activity that goes on in the brain that has been a mystery since the beginning of time is dreaming. Kaku says that brain scans can show us how they take place, but the reason why we dream is still not understood.
Michio Kaku: First of all, the prefrontal cortex, right behind your forehead, that is the thinking brain. That’s who you are. If you want to know where are you right now, you are basically sitting right behind your forehead, however that’s turned off when you dream. Also your fact checker, the fact checker that says, “uh oh something’s wrong, something’s not right,” that’s also turned off, that’s right behind your eyeballs. But your amygdala lights up like a Christmas tree. Your amygdala controls emotion, especially nightmares and fearful memories, and that’s why many dreams are associated with fear, because the emotional center is turned on, the fact checker is turned off, and the prefrontal cortex, the thinking brain is also turned off. Now we can record this with MRI scans now. And it’s now possible to decipher the MRI patterns to create an image. This means that one day we’ll be able to wake up in the morning, push the play button and see the dream that we had the previous night.
Marty Peterson: Dr. Michio Kaku examines all aspects of the brain and discusses the possibilities of tapping its potential in the future in his book, The Future of the Mind, available in stores and online. He also invites listeners to visit his website at mkaku.org. For information about all of our guests, you can visit our site at viewpointsonline.net.
Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.