Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mind reading technology: In your face and in your mind - or maybe not ...

Here is a Fox News interview with Japanese physicist, Michio Kaku, who is quite convinced that in the near future we will be able to read people's minds - high tech phrenology, really.

(= Bumps on the brain explain your mind.)

You know, I heard all this a zillion years ago when video killed the radio star.

As I recall, computers were going to think like people. That didn't happen, but ... on to the next thing, no delays!

Evolutionary psychology! You ARE the cave man! Okay, so that didn't turn up a single piece of useful information, and just got further and further from science? Well, obviously, .. More money for research is needed ...

Oh yes, and ... chimps think like people! Didn't you know? When was the last time you tore off your neighbour's arm and ate it before her eyes?

Was it last summer at the block barbecue? I guess her aunties must have been kind of cautious about offering her bracelets for Christmas ...

Actually, it makes more sense to argue that dogs think like people than that chimps do (at least dogs like being around people, which is a beginning .... )

Anyway, look, welcome to the latest schtick: Neuroscience will soon read your thoughts, as per this video. Wowza! Or maybe not ...

A couple of thoughts, to orient a reasonable person:

1. From Mario Beauregard, lead author of The Spiritual Brain:

This study is based on a certain correspondence between elementary visual stimuli and the spatial organization of very basic visual processing in the occipital cortex.

Thoughts are much more complex and correlated with diffuse neural processing throughout the brain. That is, there is no correspondence between the spatial organization of neural processing associated with thoughts and the nature of these thoughts.

This is why it is impossible to read thoughts with fMRI scanners (this is also true for other neuroimaging techniques).
2. From me, following up on Mario:

Thoughts are not like bricks in a building. Here's an obvious example: Consider abstractions like: Toronto

My idea of Toronto (Canada's largest city, on the north shore of Lake Ontario, where I live) is probably different from yours. I've lived here for about 45 years, so I probably have many more ideas and associations than you would. So how could there be a "one on one" map of our ideas and of all other possible subjects' ideas?

3. Friends have offered additional thoughts, for example, neurosurgeon Mike Egnor:

It's interesting scientifically only in that it highlights fMRI's ability to image cerebral metabolism in real time with much better resolution than was ever possible before (it's much better than PET scanning, which was the gold standard).

fMRI works by imaging local changes in cerebral blood flow, which corresponds to activation of small regions of the brain.

This latest flurry appears to be the usual 'science-as-press-release', although at least it's not some idiotic evolutionary theory. Researchers in Japan have tweaked fMRI to be able to image geometrical patterns of blood flow (and neuronal activity) in the occipital cortex that corresponds to reading letters. It so happens that the visual system maps with high fidelity. That is, the patterns of light activation of the retina are transmitted with spatial fidelity to the occipital cortex, so if you're looking at a circle of light, there actually is a tiny circle of neurons activated in the occipital cortex. fMRI can resolve this, so it can read 'letters' that the person is reading by imaging the cortex. It is quite laborious (it takes multiple images and, as I understand, many minutes of looking at a letter to get an image).

The ocular system is a bit atypical in its mapping fidelity. In most other regions of the cortex, especially in the large association areas where much of our thought seems to be mediated, there are no maps that we know of. The motor system and the somatic sensory system have maps, but less refined.

... fMRI doesn't allow us to 'read minds'; it merely images patterns of cortical activation that we've know about for decades. There is nothing qualitatively different about the 'lie detection' capabilities of fMRI and the stuff we already use. People give physiological clues when they are lying; wives of cheating husbands and parents of naughty children have known this for millennia. Liars sweat, get tachycardia, avoid eye contact, stammer, and get different patterns of blood flow in their brains. It's all physiology. There's nothing spooky about fMRI.

By the same account, there is no substitute for skillful evaluation of the data. If fMRI is to be used for lie detection (it apparently has already been used for that purpose in a criminal case in India), it needs to be vetted with the same rigor as lie detectors used in courts today. The potential for abuse, even tyranny, is real and scary. People defer to fancy technology, and fMRI is very alluring.

I must say that I'm appalled at the sensationalization of scientific research today, and at the idiotic things that scientists ... are willing to say in public. These advances in fMRI are genuine technical advances, and they will probably prove quite valuable in future brain research. But the notion that they allow us to 'read minds' is nuts.

Besides, we can already read minds. We can converse, which has orders of magnitude more sensitivity and specificity than a 3 million dollar fMRI machine.
4. And from another friend:

What it appears that they did at a basic level does not extend to the fantastical notions of Dr. Kaku. He's projecting into the future, and we know how well that works. I have no problem with the possibility that they may eventually be able to reproduce visual imagery from brain scans. But there would need to be massive breakthoughs in the resolution of brain scanning equipment.

The visual cortex is actually reasonably well mapped. Unfortunately, I think most of the data comes from animal studies. By recording signals at the thalamus level in cats, researchers were able to basically reproduce some of the images from the nerve signals. This was done with implants and not through fMRI equipment.

Essentially, I think the researchers are employing ID notions of reverse engineering to try and decode the signals within the brain. Even if many of these signals are decoded, it says nothing about how these signals give rise to consciousness or to the mind. It also says nothing about how the mind can "re-wire" the brain as in neuroplasticity. Dr. Kaku's notion of using this to read minds in a perfect way that won't be subject to the same problems as a polygraph is ridiculous. If there is a way to confuse the "mind reading" equipment, people would figure it out. It's all pure speculation in that regard.
Well, I have no doubt that people would find a way to confuse any brain equipment, though cats may not.

I also think that the best way to understand a cat is by following the cat around. You can take the cat apart, but then you have a dead cat. You will learn some things that way. But you would be amazed at what you can learn by just following the cat around. Remember that the cat's world is about 6 cm from the ground ... so the first thing you want to do in understanding a cat is lie down on the floor for a while and notice how different the world looks. It's as world that few humans see much of and all cats see a lot of).

Another resource: A psychologist's view of the question.

Here's the YouTube:

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Religion and the media: Why it doesn't pay to be just plain vindictive

Last night, the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. offered a panel discussion on the theme of the book, edited by Paul Marshall, pictured here, Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion.

This subject is more complex than some realize because, as I have discussed elsewhere, modern media people have often seen their role as essentially replacing, marginalizing, or at best patronizing religion. In such cases, not understanding becomes a point of pride. That is, they wouldn't even want to be the person who knew what, say, the "apophatic tradition of mystical language"* is.

For example, Terry Mattingly quotes Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a premier center for media studies:
I don't know the difference between evangelical and charismatic, but I can argue about who has sluttier videos, Britney or Christina. (P. 5)
Remarkably, Clark is a Catholic who attends Mass most Sundays. While he tells us that he recognizes that he has a problem, I don't get the feeling from his comments that he understands how big a problem it is or - and this is the critical point - that at this point it is only his problem, not the religious community's.

That is because, as it happens, media that celebrate ignorance often have the opposite effect from what they intend. In the chapter "Jesus Christ Superstar: The Passion of the Press," Jeremy Lott discusses the curious case of Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. Media people were determined to hate the film, and gave a ready ear to any dirt about it:

With a few notable exceptions - Peter Boyer's profile in the New Yorker being one - news coverage of the movie was bad, the opinion writing was clich├ęd, and the movie criticism was worse.
But, he notes, it was all so bad that the audience decided to give the movie a chance. Which turned out to be just the ticket for producer Gibson:

Evangelicals might have had serious theological difficulties with this film: the focus on the suffering of Jesus was too intense and unrelenting; the identification of bread and wine with body and blood was so very transubstantial; and the movie drew heavily on the traditions of the Church, rather than relying only on the bare text of the gospels, to determine the content and structure of the story. ... By repeatedly reporting concerns over the movie's literalism, the press did yeomen's work to put these concerns to rest.
Yes indeed, media hatchetmen would have loved to set the Protestant cat among the Catholic pigeons, but they knew so little about the true theological and cultural differences between the two groups that they had no idea that their frantic accusations were reassuring the Protestants that the film was literal enough to be suitable viewing for Protestants.

In the same way, the media-driven uproar over the film's supposed anti-Semitism caused Christians to renew efforts to scrub anti-Semitism away. Thus, when Mel Gibson actually did make anti-Semitic statements (while drunk and under arrest) in 2006, the incident sank without a trace.

That, I believe, is because the accusations of anti-Semitism - not supported by the film as released - sounded pretty stale - and now the film now stood apart from its creator.

Lott sums up:

In one sense, the story of the success of The Passion of the Christ is really about the press's failure to honestly grapple with broader questions of religion. In another sense, the story is about the estrangement of American journalists from their audience. The movie did not lead to the rise in anti-Semitic sentiment that the critics had predicted. The fact that the predictions were broadcast as widely and loudly as they were (see the "anti-Semitism" chart above) bespeaks a troubling willingness by journalists to believe the worst of religious would-be moviegoers.
In my view, as noted above, the main thing to see at this point is that the estrangement isn't hurting the religious moviegoers; it is hurting the media.

But then, as Aunt Marge has always told us, people who are just plain vindictive end up wishing they had two noses to cut off to spite their face with - but they don't even have that.

*The apophatic tradition? Defining by negatives, as in "no eye has seen, no ear has heard no mind has conceived ... " A form of speech sometimes used by mystics, because of the difficulty of describing experiences involving altered consciousness.


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