Physicist Michio Kaku talks telekinesis, uploading memories and The Future of the Mind

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Though telepathy and photographing dreams seems like the stuff of sci-fi, physicist Michio Kaku says science is catching up to fiction. In his new book, The Future of the Mind, the theoretical physicist and co-founder of string-field theory delves into the study of the human brain and these seemingly impossible feats that are now becoming possible. In advance of Kaku's book-signing and talk at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Tattered Cover Colfax, we spoke with him about telekinesis, uploading memories and the evolution of the theory of consciousness.

See also: Goodbye, Ghostbuster: Remembering Harold Ramis

Westword: What made you want to write The Future of the Mind?

Michio Kaku: When I was a kid I was fascinated by science fiction about telepathy, reading minds and telekinesis, moving objects with the mind, and I would read stories about recording memories and becoming a genius and all these things, but I grew up and became a physicist and I realized that all that was nonsense. Until now. Now because of advances in physics, we can actually peer into the brain and all the things that I mentioned -- telepathy, telekinesis, uploading memories, recording memories, even photographing a dream -- these are things that we actually do in the laboratory. And I wanted to tell people the excitement that we feel knowing that these new advanced instruments of physics are literally prying open the thinking process. 

Can you talk about telepathy? How is that demonstrated in the lab?

We have people who are paralyzed because of a stroke or they have a war injury or they lost a limb, and we can now put a chip the size of a dime on their brain, connect that chip to a laptop computer, and then these people can search the web by thinking. They can write e-mails, they can do crossword puzzles, they can operate a wheelchair, operate household appliances, and they can even operate mechanical arms and mechanical legs. The military, of course, is interested in this because it allows the wounded veterans to use mechanical arms and legs that they can control mentally just by thinking about it. One of my colleagues, Stephen Hawking the physicist, he's lost control of all of his bodily functions now and he communicates by thinking. There's a chip that picks up radio from his mind, decodes it, and then types. You can now type by simply thinking about it. 

What were you most surprised to learn about in your research for this book? 

I used to think that uploading a memory was simply too difficult for science, but actually the first step was taken just last year. For the first time in history, scientists were able to actually upload a memory into a mouse. Next, they want to do it to a monkey, and then after that they want to do it for Alzheimer's patients. In other words, what we want is a brain pacemaker. Just like a pacemaker makes the heart beat normally, we think that a brain pacemaker would give an Alzheimer's person the gift of memory so they wouldn't get lost, they would know who they are, and it would not become such a burden on society. Those memories are placed on a chip that can then be uploaded into the brain. This was once considered science fiction, but already we've taken the first steps, at least for animals. 

How was memory uploaded to a mouse?

What they do is the memory is formed in the very center of the brain called the hippocampus. There are signals that go bouncing across the hippocampus and you can record by putting two electrodes on either side of the hippocampus, you can then measure all the electrical impulses going back and forth. Then you put that on a tape recorder. You then tape the signals that go back and forth and the mouse learns something. Later, the mouse forgets, and then you put it back and the mouse instantly remembers. 

You discuss the theory of consciousness in your book. How has the theory changed over the years?

Well, we used to be totally clueless about consciousness, but now we have brain scans that allow us to see the brain as it thinks. We can now differentiate between animal consciousness and our consciousness. I give a definition of consciousness in my book that consciousness is a process of continually creating a model of where you are with respect to space, with respect to other animals, and with respect to the future. Animals do not simulate tomorrow. They do not daydream. They don't plan. Animals are largely instinctual. When they hibernate it's not because they plan, it's because it gets cold and their bodies' metabolism slows down automatically. We plan to go to sleep. We plan to travel. And that's what separates human consciousness from animal's consciousness. I think there's a continuum all the way from the simplest form of consciousness up to humans, which can simulate the future, which I think is the essence of human consciousness and also intelligence. Why is it that a bank robber could have a low IQ because he flunked out of elementary school, but he can rob banks better than the police can catch him? It's because the bank robber just simulates the future. He can daydream. He can think about, "What if I do this? What if I do that?" And he thinks about it much better than any police. And that's why I think that this is a measure of intelligence. 

What do you think that people will be most surprised to learn in reading your book? 

I think the casual person will be surprised to learn that you can photograph dreams. There's a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio called Inception. Most people say, ha, you can't photograph a dream, but actually in my book I talk at length about how you can photograph a dream and actually direct the course of a dream. We can now take an MRI scan of the brain as it sleeps and reconstruct the images that are circulating in the brain. The first pictures were done last year. They're not very good, but the very fact that we can do it at all is amazing. And lucid dreamers are actually awake when they dream, they can actually change the course of their dreams. This has now been verified in Germany. We used to think that was hearsay in technology that people would be conscious while they dream, but we've proved it's actually correct with a brain scan. You can actually be awake when you dream, and that's what the movie Inception was all about. 

I have one chapter on super-geniuses on how the brain can malfunction and people can become mathematical geniuses. We still don't understand why, but in the book I give many theories as to why certain brains have photographic memory. Which means that we, too, can have a photographic memory. But we don't. One guy had a bullet that went through the left side of his brain, another person dove into a swimming pool and hit the left side of his head very hard, and it hurt a lot but eventually these people became savants, performing mathematic feats that a supercomputer would have a hard time doing. Now we think that what's happening is these people with photographic memory forget how to forget. The erasing process is injured, and these people just record and record and record but don't erase. There are many cases with people with such injuries that end up as super geniuses in math or art. If you go to Kennedy Airport and look up in the international arrival mural, there's a huge map of New York City drawn by a savant in a helicopter who only went once. He saw New York once in a helicopter and drew this 100-foot panorama in JFK airport. 

Do these people have problems because they remember everything? It seems like perhaps our brains erase that information for a reason.

Yeah, there is a reason. Some of these people have low IQ, some of these people cannot hold a job, some of these people are paralyzed because they have all of these memories coming at them. One person said it's like split vision. On one side of the eye, a person sees reality as it is. On the other side, they're reliving Tuesday afternoon at four o'clock thirty years ago and it's bothersome. Some of these people would rather not have it because it doesn't help them. But it would be great if we could turn it on and off, right?

How do you think that all of these developments in research into the mind and consciousness will change the world? 

Well, first of all we have so many people who have mental illness. President Obama initiated the Brain Activity Map Project with the Europeans, and that's a project to map the entire brain. The immediate goal of this project is to understand mental illness and finally cure it. I think that's an immediate benefit to society; the Bible even mentions mental illness. I think one of the immediate benefits of this is that we'll understand Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, schizophrenia and OCD, for example. In most downtown centers they have homeless people, and many of them hear voices, they talk to themselves. But why? In their brain scans, you can see that these people, the left temporal lobe is excited in that it generates voices. But these voices are generated without permission. When we talk to ourselves, that part of the brain is active, but we're aware of the fact that we're talking to ourselves. These people are not, and you can actually see how mental illness progresses in a brain that is miswired. Another goal is that the space program is very costly, but if you mentally connect a human to a robot or an avatar, then the avatar goes into outer space and you sit on the earth simply in mental communication with the avatar. This could revolutionize the space program. We could have robots on the moon controlled by earthlings on the earth in their living room. The construction industry could benefit. You could have super-human robots, robots with the power of Iron Man, that are controlled by workers mentally. There are all sorts of industrial applications. In Japan, the first avatar was created. A robot is controlled by a worker with a helmet. 

Do you foresee any dangers in all of these advances in technology?

Oh, yes. For example, if you can upload a memory for Alzheimer's people, you can also upload an incorrect memory, a lie. For example, our court system is based on eyewitnesses. But if you can input a memory into their minds, you don't trust them anymore. Who you are is a question of your memories, right? Your memory is telling you who you are, what you've done, what you're doing. But if your memories can be tampered with, who are you? That's a problem with Alzheimer's people. They lose their sense of identity after a while.

There are going to be ethical questions raised. And also, if you brain scan someone who is a psychopath or serial killer, and some of them their pleasure center lights up when they see other people in pain. That doesn't mean you should put them in jail, because they haven't done anything yet, but it turns out that for those serial killers who have killed, a certain fraction of them get pleasure in killing, and you see that in the brain scan. We'll have to worry about social responsibility. Some lawyers will claim that their client is innocent, that their brain was miswired, but I personally think they should be put in jail anyway even if their brain is miswired. We don't want them to walk the streets. But now science can reveal the thinking processes of psychopaths.

What do you hope that people get out of reading your book?

I want to give people the sense of wonder that science is moving very fast. The brain is the most complex object in the whole universe, more complex than any atom, more complex than the sun. It's the most complex object in the known universe, and we're slowly now understanding how the whole thing is put together. And then we want to cure mental illness, we want to cure diseases, and we want to understand intelligence. What about robots, what about artificial intelligence? What about aliens in outer space? Are there other forms of consciousness other than human consciousness? In the last chapter of the book I talk about sending consciousness into outer space as a light beam. This is an idea that was explored by many science fiction stories. The idea is to have human consciousness put on a light beam and then sent into space, and this is now actually possible. It won't happen for maybe a hundred years, but it's actually mathematically and physically possible to map the brain, put the map on a laser beam, and shoot it into outer space. This would be the most efficient way to explore the gallery at the speed of light. No accidents, no meteor showers, no lack of oxygen, no weightlessness problems, just pure light which carries consciousness into outer space.

Michio Kaku will be at Tattered Cover Colfax at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 3 for a free book-signing and talk; find out more at tatteredcover.com.

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