Mind Matters Reporting on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
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into the deep woods, atmospheric landscape with archway and ancient trees, misty and foggy mood
into the deep woods, atmospheric landscape with archway and ancient trees, misty and foggy mood

Is Sci Fi Brain Decoding Becoming a Reality?

To what extent can the inner workings of thought and dream be measured through correlation?

Today I want to look at something slightly different. After stumbling upon a piece by Cassidy Ward titled “Inception’s dream-reading technology is becoming reality” over at SYFY Wire, I started thinking more about the idea of reading our dreams.

He’s talking about Inception, a 2013 film from Christopher Nolan, of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight fame:

The protagonist, Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), is a thief who makes his living stealing corporate secrets by invading a target’s dreams. Our dreams are meant to be safe, untouchable. They are constructed of our most private thoughts, unbidden even by our own conscious selves. To invade them is to invade the most sanctified halls of our minds. If we’re not safe in our dreams, where are we safe?

Thankfully, our private internal narratives, both waking and asleep, remain safe. But scientists are working to change that.

Cassidy Ward, “Inception’s dream-reading technology is becoming reality” at SyFyWire

Here’s the trailer:

As Ward points out, scientists have been working for some time to decode the mysteries of the human brain. At least since 2005, some have been working on translating thoughts into text or imagery. The idea that we could recreate thoughts or dreams as motion pictures isn’t completely far-fetched. After all, the brain does produce electrical signals that can be measured and correlated to certain ideas or mental states.

The question, for me at least, seems to be “To what extent can the inner workings of thought and dream be measured through correlation?” Being more of a trichotomist myself, I tend to view the experience of mind and thought as the intersection between the material and the immaterial; the physical and the metaphysical. Ward, on the other hand, seems fairly confident in materialism:

The brain-body barrier, while integral to every facet of our existence, has remained an impassable wall for as long as we’ve existed. Science, knowing no uncrossable horizon, seeks to tear it down.

Despite the (so far) mostly unknowable mechanics of the brain’s inner workings, we know that thoughts do have a physical counterpart. They aren’t just abstractions fluttering through our minds like wisps of smoke on the wind. There is electrical activity, connectivity between varying portions of the brain; some physical communication is happening, which results in what we perceive as thought.

Cassidy Ward, “Inception’s dream-reading technology is becoming reality” at SyFyWire

For example:

For the most part, yeah, Ward is right. What we know about the brain’s mechanics is mostly unknowable but there are physical counterparts to our thoughts that can be measured; there is something physical occurring. However, that last sentence demarcates the fundamental difference between Ward and myself on this topic: “… connectivity between varying portions of the brain… results in what we perceive as thought.”

Some mind dualists would argue that what we experience as consciousness is the result of our immaterial minds influencing our physical brains. As a trichotomist, however, I believe that Ward is half right. Make a slight addition or adjustment, and you can get a fairly accurate perspective of how the mind works from someone who isn’t a reductionist. The physical connections in our brain do, in part, result in what we perceive as thought. However, they do so only in conjunction with an immaterial mind or consciousness.

But Ward seems overly optimistic. At the end of the day, you either believe the mind can be taken apart and understood like a complex Lego structure or you believe there will always be aspects of the brain that are immaterial and, therefore, out of reach of material science. Where you stand depends very much on your underlying worldview; something mindreading machines have yet to interpret.

The interpretation of simple images, although barely correlated, is certainly an accomplishment. I have no doubt that the technology and methodology will improve. We seem to be at the beginning of our ability to correlate brain waves and fMRI images with mental states and thoughts. Ward and I obviously come from very different presuppositions about the world, but I would venture that we both certainly agree that the future of mind reading technology will be exciting.


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Adam Nieri

Adam Nieri has interests in philosophy of science and philosophy of mind and he holds an MA in Science and Religion from Biola University. He has background in social media and marketing, photography/graphic design, IT, and teaching.

Is Sci Fi Brain Decoding Becoming a Reality?