Michio Kaku on Reading Minds, Recording Dreams, and Brain Imaging

Theoretical Physicist, Author, and Science Educator
Dr. Michio Kaku returns to Big Think studios to discuss his latest book, The Future of the Mind. Here he explains the remarkable advances in brain imaging.
  • Transcript


Michio Kaku: When I was a child I was fascinated by telepathy in science fiction.  In fact, I tried really hard to read other peoples’ minds, to project my thoughts into other people's heads.  And I came to the conclusion that maybe telepaths do walk the surface of the earth, but I wasn’t one of them.  Now I’m a physicist and I realize that with all the electromagnetic probes that we have of the human brain we can actually see thoughts ricocheting across the brain itself.  We can see the thinking living brain as it thinks, and we can create computer simulations of this to understand what people are thinking.  So at the present time telepathy exists.  For example, look at my colleague Stephen Hawking.  He’s lost control of his fingers now so he cannot communicate even with a laptop computer.  But look at his right frame of his glasses.  There’s an EEG sensor that picks up radio waves from his brain, decodes that, and he’s allowed to manipulate to some degree a laptop computer.  You can do better by putting a chip directly on top of the brain.  People who are totally paralyzed, who are vegetables and they’re trapped in this shell of a lifeless body – these people can now play video games.  They can read email, write email, do crossword puzzles.  They can operate their wheelchairs.  They can control household appliances.  They can control mechanical arms.  Next they will control mechanical legs and exoskeletons.  In fact, one of the people that pioneers this technology, for the next soccer World Cup [this scientist] wants to have a paralyzed person put on an exoskeleton and initiate the soccer games. That’s a goal for one of the scientists that I’ve interviewed for my book.

And so we’re way past simply understanding the way in which the brain radiates radio.  We’re at the point now where we can actually interface the human brain with a computer and eventually with an exoskeleton by which they can become Iron Man.  And so Iron Man is not simply a question of science fiction.  It’s something that we can actually visualize in the laboratory.

In addition to putting a chip on top of the brain you can actually put sensors directly into the brain itself that are like hair-like thin fibers.  There’s a certain class of people with depression that have been resistant to drugs, pharmacology, psychiatry, counseling.  They are chronically depressed.  It turns out that when you put a brain scan – put them in a brain scan - you find out that yes indeed there’s a certain part of the brain that seems to be associated with this depression.  By putting in probes you can dampen the electrical activity of this and all of a sudden they’re cured.  On one hand you see somebody who’s chronically depressed, wants to commit suicide, has been plagued by this.  And afterwards they’re just cured.  It’s remarkable.  But this is just another of the ways that we can access the human mind.  Another way is through probes in an operation on epileptics.  Epileptics have many seizures – many of them are life threatening.  It’s possible to remove part of the cranium.  These people are fully awake during this process because the skull has no sense organs to sense pain.

You put a bunch of electrodes directly on the brain itself.  These people can type.  These people can type very quickly simply by thinking about it.  They think about a certain letter, a computer recognizes the pattern and a computer will type in this way.  Yet another way of probing into the brain itself is with an MRI scan.  We can take the living brain, put it in an MRI and get 30,000 dots like a Christmas tree set of lights that code the amount of electrical activity.  You take these 30,000 dots, put it into a computer program that can then decipher it and bingo, what you get is a picture of what they are thinking.  We can now visualize what somebody is thinking about.  In fact it’s on the web.  There’s a picture of Steve Martin, for example, in one of his movies and then right next to it is a picture as viewed through the human mind.  This is amazing.  You can clearly recognize the eyes, the ears.  You cannot recognize the fact that it’s Steve Martin.  However, you can also do giraffes.  You can put elephants and clearly you’re looking at an animal and not a human.  And now get this.  We can actually begin the process of photographing dreams.  This was considered pure science fiction.  Look at the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio called Inception.  It turns out that the first steps in this direction have been taken already in Kyoto and at Berkeley.  What you do is you put the patient in an MRI scanner and he falls asleep.  The brain is then scanned creating 30,000 dots.  A computer analyzes the 30,000 dots of a sleeping brain and reconstructs the image of what he’s dreaming about.

Now I’ve seen these pictures.  They’re pretty crude.  You see a picture of a human and obviously he’s thinking about and dreaming about a human.  But one day we may be able to refine this technique so that when you wake up in the morning and you hit the play button of a computer, you see the dream that you had last night.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton