In The Future of the Mind, Michio Kaku (author of the hugely impressive Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible amongst other popular science titles) provides an always interesting and frequently astounding insight into the work of the scientists around the world who are revolutionising the way we think about the human brain and thus, in turn, the way we think about ourselves.
The first third of The Future of the Mind is a highly philosophical section examining the mind itself and the concept of consciousness. Kaku states that the two greatest mysteries in all of nature are the mind and the universe and that their incomprehensibility is not the only link between the two. There are apparently 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, roughly the same as the number of neurons in the human brain. Kaku suggests that you may well have to travel twenty-four trillion miles, to the first star outside our solar system, to find an object as complex as the brain. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that developing an actual scientific understanding of the nature, purpose and functioning of the brain has proved just as difficult and time-consuming as journeying into space.
Kaku discusses the development of the various technologies (from MRI to PET, ECOG, DTI and other acronyms along the way) that slowly opened up the world of the mind and allowed for the gradual mapping of mind/body function and thought processes. The explanations of these technologies are necessarily quite complex but Kaku breaks the detail down well and uses clear illustrations to aid understanding. He also offers a physicist’s perspective on consciousness and creates an interesting layered definition of the concept that includes plants and the animal kingdom as well as humans.
While Kaku’s explanation of how scientific knowledge of the brain and the thought processes of the mind has developed as well as his philosophical discussion of the evolving nature of consciousness are thought-provoking and generally accessible, The Future of the Mind really takes off when he moves on to discuss the more science fiction-like work than real scientists are currently undertaking to better master and utilise the human brain.
In the middle third of the book, Kaku moves on to examining the new and experimental technologies which are making the previously outlandish ideas of mind reading, videotaping dreams, memory expanding pills and telekinesis startlingly possible. The development of science in these science fiction-like areas is frankly amazing but, then again, given what Kaku shows to have already been achieved, who’s to say that the researchers will not meet their goals. The one criticism that could be raised about Kaku’s explanations in areas like mind reading is that, while he clearly presents what has been achieved and what is likely to be discovered in the future, he does not discuss in detail the problems associated with the discoveries and the likely difficulties that human trials/implementation would encounter. He is excellent at highlighting the wonder of scientific discoveries but perhaps shies away from exposing some of the more morally troubling issues (impact of testing on animals, dangers to human volunteers, etc).
The final section of The Future of the Mind considers alternate forms of consciousness from dreams, drugs and mental illness to robots and the potential inner-workings of aliens. The discussion of non-human consciousness is particularly interesting and thought-provoking – just how far can robots develop? And what obligations would we have to them if/when consciousness could be proved? Kaku then goes on to discuss how an understanding of these differing forms of consciousness can be developed and used to potentially control and manipulate the brain to manage debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. For all its apparent mundanity, this research into the medical potential of cutting-edge research into the brain and consciousness is arguably the most important development in real terms that Kaku discusses.
The Future of the Mind is another excellent book from Michio Kaku. His own mind is truly amazing (just consider all of the scientific projects that he undertook and succeeded with while still in high school) and he has a true gift for explanation. The nature and workings of the brain as well as the nature of consciousness are incredibly complex and divisive issues but Kaku breaks down the difficult theories, technologies and experiments in such a way as to make them enlightening and entertaining. Kaku masterfully mixes hard science with film, book and pop culture references in order to explain and clarify the topics that he covers. The Future of the Mind is a fascinating book and offers a gateway to better understanding the brain and what lies in store in the future for human consciousness and thought.