The Heady Future of the Human Brain

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Photo: Roxana Wegner

When people think about how we’ll live in the future, they often start with the devices we’ll use, the buildings we’ll live in, or the jackets we’ll wear. But the most astounding changes to our lives 50 years from now may take place in our very own heads. Neuroscientist Heather Berlin, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says the powerful computers we call brains will only be more useful as we understand them better. We recently talked to Berlin about the future of the brain, whether we’ll ever be telepathic, and the prospect of staying alive even after our bodies die.

What surprising things will we be able to do with our brains in the next 50 years?
I think we will start to incorporate neural prosthetics. For example, electrical implants can stimulate parts of the brain to treat psychiatric illness. I think in the future we will start using these implants for cognitive enhancement — to help increase our memory or to increase our attention. Or to make us not need as much sleep and stay alert longer.

If people have neural implants, it will be possible for them to control a cursor on a computer or type emails just by using their thoughts. I also think we’ll be able to decode people’s thoughts at some level and predict what they might be thinking, maybe not with 100 percent accuracy, but maybe 70 or 80 percent.

How would that work?
With an implant that records information. For example, there are studies where they’ll show someone a picture while they’re in an fMRI machine. We can show a person, say, a picture of a fish and a cat, and we can record what their brain activity looks like. Then we can show them a picture and without knowing the picture, look at the brain activity and predict what the person is seeing, whether it’s a fish or a cat.

That’s what we have already. Fifty years in the future we’ll get better at decoding this information. We’ll be able to predict what a person is seeing based on this brain activity or maybe even what they’re thinking.

And you think this stuff will be elective, the kind of thing people do for fun?
The kind of stuff we’re using now to treat psychiatric illness will eventually be used for cognitive enhancement. Like the way we have plastic surgery to get a better nose or breast implants, you’ll be able to get these neural implants that will increase cognitive function. Maybe only people who can afford it get neural implants, and they have an advantage. Maybe it’s going to be like performance-enhancing drugs, where it’s going to have to be controlled.

Will people be able to communicate telepathically?
Traditionally, telepathy and telekinesis have been thought of as some magic power. That kind of telepathy and telekinesis, I don’t think will exist. But if you look at it as, we can decode what my brain is thinking and stimulate your brain in a similar pattern, then there are ways we can transfer information from one brain to another.

Do you think we’ll be able to implant memories?
We can do that already. What might be interesting is that we can stimulate certain memories. We know this from classic studies where they were going into people’s brains while they were awake during surgery. They would stimulate a circuit, and it would trigger a memory in a person. So you could have a neural implant that would selectively trigger certain memories. It would be very difficult, but we could certainly stimulate the parts of the brain that trigger memories. Whether we can be specific about which memory is triggered when, that will be difficult.

Do you think we’ll be able to cure mental illness completely?
I think ideally we might be able prevent mental illness by manipulating the genome. If we understand the genetic basis, we can manipulate the genome to remove the vulnerability in the person. That might prevent the development of a psychiatric illness. If we understand the exact genetic mechanism of something like autism, then in utero we can do a genetic test and go in and reprogram the genome. We might be able to eradicate the illness.

What about the future of the brain is most exciting to you?
The idea that we could eventually download my entire brain, map out every neuron firing, store it on a computer, and reboot it. If my consciousness goes with it, it could be a form of immortality.

Do you think it would work?
There are some neuroscientists who think consciousness is substrate-independent, that it just has to do with information processing and you would be conscious whether that was substituted in the brain or silicon. I actually tend to think that there’s something about the matter — the neurons triggering, the chemicals slushing around, a brain that’s been in a body that’s developed over time. I think there’s something particular about the biological mechanism that the information’s in. I am skeptical that it would be conscious, but if it could work, that'd be really cool.