We’re still in the early days of brain science. The most complex thing in the universe still constantly surprises and confuses us. But, that won’t stop us from connecting them. I know that because we already have.
While the signals being sent back and forth are rudimentary words such as “hola,” we all know how quickly technology can change. Soon, perhaps, full blown telepathy will be here.
Exciting times these are. But let’s go further. What else might a network of brains be able to share? When the brain—the thing responsible for our memories, consciousness, and perception of the world—is open to interpretation, could we share everything that makes us us?
Let’s explore some possibilities and potential limitations.
First, a quick primer on brain-to-brain technology.
While many areas of the brain tackle the same tasks between each of us, how we end up processing and interpreting that information can differ markedly.
While the visual cortex at the back of the brain is where signals from our eyes are decoded, the patterns relating to types of visual information will be unique.
Therefore, for anything to be shared between people on this network, we must first find the correlating patterns of neurons for what it is we’re sharing.
If I wanted to send a basic sentence, I would first need to have my brain scanned as I thought of the words involved. That way, the computer would be able to see what neurons became active as a result of which words I was thinking.
The same would need to be done to the person I was sending the thought to. Because, in order for them to experience the sentence correctly, we need to know where those words are stored in their unique brain.
As you can see, simply linking two brains together is not enough. We must also decode the related brain activity. Once that is achieved for all involved, we can start sharing something meaningful.
Once we have a dictionary of each mind, we should be able to start communicating with each other. At first this would be similar to how we talk, only without the noise, but there are more benefits and potential downsides to this.
For instance, many people afflicted with certain brain injuries cannot move or communicate in the traditional sense. These ‘locked in’ individuals may be able to use this technology to share their thoughts once again.
One concern would be privacy. A device capable of reading our mind could be used to gain more insight into who we are than current social networks and internet providers do—and considering we are already concerned about how much data is being extracted about us, this point may be enough to put people off entirely.
Another interesting point is how we experience the conversation. We are not listening to the person on the other end, rather, their signals are being induced using the same neurons we use when thinking, it stands to reason we could misconstrue these signals as our own inner chatter—“Did I just think that?”
Of course the information could be more than language—perhaps our senses and emotions can also be transmitted.
By recording the activity of photoreceptor cells in the eyes or the nerves within the auditory cortex, we should be able to share our immediate environment with someone on the other side of the planet. If you want your Mum to see the beautiful city you’re traveling through, just spark up the connection and show her in real time as if she were there with you.
In the cinematic classic the Matrix, Neo asks Trinity if she’s capable of flying a helicopter. At that point in time the answer is ‘no,’ but with a quick call to Tank, everything she needs is downloaded to her mind in a matter of seconds.
Would it be possible for us to share the knowledge from the world’s foremost experts effortlessly across this network? A few points sharply separate this idea from the one above.
First, it would require far more complex information. A skill such as flying a helicopter requires the technical understanding of how it works and what controls do what, as well as a behavioral understanding of how to maneuver in different conditions. Scanning a brain to find the neurons related to all the knowledge involved in this skill is, obviously, far more complicated than for language.
The second issue here is that when trying to share it with someone else, the recipient would have no experience with flying a helicopter. Sharing language relies on both parties having learned the words before hand, sharing something unknown to one person introduces a new obstacle.
Without an established pattern of neurons to stimulate, we would need to know how this person’s brain would incorporate the knowledge into its current structure, and then to physically change their brain in accordance.
“Knowledge is not something static that gets transferred from one person to another like pouring water from one glass to another. It is dynamic. Information becomes knowledge when we make our own meaning out of it.”
—Diane Halpern, Thought and Knowledge
Making drastic changes to someone’s brain in such a short time could raise many problems—for instance, our memories are all linked together in a vast network, altering and introducing new patterns is likely to disrupt old ones, which could also change the personality and consciousness of the person.
Such an endeavor would necessitate a high degree of certainty in the accuracy of the knowledge we’re downloading, and trust in the people it’s originating from.
Will it be possible to not only see what someone else can see, but to also see it in the way that they see it?
This harks back to a common theme in philosophical discussions—qualia: ineffable and intrinsic aspects of our experience that as far as we know cannot be shared or even described.
Take the color red. Anybody with a sense of color will be able to identify it, but can any two people be sure that they experience it the same way? If my version of red were more like your version of yellow, how would we ever know? How would you describe the color red to someone that has been color blind from brith?
It may be that all of our experience can be broken down into such indescribable elements. How can we be sure that chocolate tickles the taste buds in the same way? How do we know that the experience of a pin prick is felt the same way? What about the everyday actions of raising a hand, rolling your eyes, or yawning—are the particular sensations evoked in making such movements totally unique to us?
“Every single thought draws on a network of thousands of other thoughts, other “reds” and blues and squares and numbers, all of which are understood in unique ways. To read someone’s mind, you’d need the Rosetta Stone of their thoughts.”
It might be that the world we see is nothing like that of another person, but it might also be more accurate than we think, we just don’t know how to find out. This isn’t a problem in everyday experience because we each interpret the same information in a way that is accurate—different blues but the same sky; different pains but both are unpleasant; different sensations of raising a hand but both allow us to pick things up.
The problem of course is how we could possibly send this inner experience to someone else using a brain network. We can find the neurons responsible for the sensation of red, but cannot be sure how they are experienced by the person.
I believe that our sense of self, our consciousness, and the way we perceive the world, are all products of the brain and the way that it is wired. Every brain is wired differently from birth, and we each spend a lot of time coming to understand what everything means. I therefore lean on the side of everyone having a different conception of reality, even if the differences are not dramatic.
“Our neocortex is virgin territory when our brain is created. It has the capability of learning and therefore of creating connections between its pattern recognizers, but it gains those connections from experience.”
—Ray Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind
If our experience is rooted in the very early formation of our brain, and our years of experience have been built on and around this personal interpretation, it stands to reason that the only way you could ever see the world the way someone else does, is to occupy their brain, with all of their connections.
This, of course, would mean you were them—you could not possibly hold onto your own consciousness and sense of self were you to, even for a moment, change all your neural wiring to resemble another brain. Your brain would simply be a copy of someone else, and you, the one occupying your current neural wiring, would for that time disappear from existence.
The Next Step
The brain is the most complex thing we know of in the universe. Billions of tiny cells populate an area slightly smaller than your skull, and are connected in a way unique to you. Together they make your world come to life, they make you who you are.
This uniqueness makes it appear impossible, or at least highly improbable, that we will ever share the essence of what it’s like to be someone else. That is, at least, to share it with another person.
But how about a computer? If such a device knows what’s stored in your memory, and also how you incorporate new experiences into your current neuronal makeup—the requirements for downloading new knowledge—couldn’t it, if we let it, go about learning new things in exactly the same way you do?
Making a digital copy of a mind is a common goal of those wanting to preserve their ‘soul’ beyond the point their body fails them. Would a digital copy of all the neurons and connections littered throughout your brain be you? Would it be conscious? Would it share your subjective experience of the world around it?
Right now, I’m not sure we have an answer to that question, but it’s something I plan to explore in the next article. For now, let me know what you think in the comments below.
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