Book review: The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku, Mind-wise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want by Nicholas Epley

 

Leyla Sanai
Sunday 23 February 2014 01:00
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Imagine you are studying for an important exam. You take a pill and, lo, suddenly you have a photographic memory. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s an innovation that may be with us imminently, according to Michio Kaku in his new book. Kaku, the reknowned scientist and author of seven books exploring the world of physics, has turned his attention to the human brain and the workings of the mind. The result fizzes with his characteristic effervescence.

The memory-improving pill is possibly only a short distance away. Already, fruit flies have been given photographic memories by the insertion of a gene which stimulates the formation of new connections between nerve cells; and mice have had memories of tasks carried out earlier inserted into their brains.

Studies are taking place on using magnetic resonance imaging to approximate the pictures in people’s minds, and electrocorticograms to read thoughts. The videotaping of dreams is in its early stages. Increasing intelligence via gene therapy, drugs or devices may not be far away. Exoskeletons are being devised to help the paralysed walk by thinking. Within our lifetimes, surrogates may be fashioned to tackle jobs too dangerous for humans, such as space exploration.

Kaku reviews recent advances and hypothesises about the future. Occasionally his theoretical suggestions skim over problems that would arise in practice. For example, he postulates from the animal experiments that it may be possible to insert new skills into the memories of the unemployed, or to bypass the need for study in doctors and lawyers by inserting whole bodies of knowledge into their memories. But many of the animal experiments involve invasive methods which carry risks of damage to surrounding brain structures, infection or bleeding problems, which he mentions in reference to deep brain stimulation, but not here.

Kaku has produced a fascinating book, packed not only with science but with popular cultural references to sci-fi films and TV shows. For all his talk of surrogates and intelligent robots, no manufactured being could have a fraction of his charisma.

Psychologist Nicholas Epley’s Mind-wise provides a guide to understanding the minds of others. His engrossing book outlines the strategies that we use: projecting from our own minds, using stereotypes, and inferring from others’ actions. He explains, via psychological tests, how these methods can fail us. Our own perspective can differ from that of others because we pay attention to different things or because we evaluate things through our own lens of beliefs, attitudes, emotions and knowledge.

Stereotypes, in turn, exaggerate differences and mask similarities between groups. Studies have shown that men and women actually feel emotions comparably (even if they don’t show it in the same way), yet still, books professing that men and women come from different planets continue to flood our bookshops. Even if stereotypes accurately pinpoint differences, they don’t give us precise contextual reasons for those differences.

Inferring from others’ actions carries its own dangers. Epley uses the example of politicians who assumed those New Orleans residents who didn’t heed the warnings to evacuate prior to Hurricane Katrina were fickle or didn’t believe the risks. In fact, statistics showed they were more likely to lack transport, the money for hotels, or relatives with whom they could stay elsewhere, and had larger families that would be harder to move.

Epley is a lucid and magnetic host, and his book, like Kaku’s, is crammed with evidence-based research. In early chapters he takes the reader through dehumanisation and anthropomorphism, both mistakes people make when trying to read the minds of others. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has enabled scientists to pinpoint the area of the brain responsible for recognising others as having minds of their own. The neurons in this area, the medial pre-frontal cortex, fail to fire when we dehumanise others. In extreme cases, thinking about those we have dehumanised instead lights up brain regions associated with disgust.

Who needs fiction when the hundred billion neurons of the brain are so mesmerising?

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