Never Mind? in Keeping with the Policy of the Humanist to Accommodate the Diverse Cultural Social, Political, and Philosophical Viewpoints of Its Readers, This Occasional Feature Allows for the Expression of Alternative, Dissenting, or Opposing Views on Issues Previously Broached within These Pages. (Creative Controversy)

By Hinrichs, Bruce H. | The Humanist, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

Never Mind? in Keeping with the Policy of the Humanist to Accommodate the Diverse Cultural Social, Political, and Philosophical Viewpoints of Its Readers, This Occasional Feature Allows for the Expression of Alternative, Dissenting, or Opposing Views on Issues Previously Broached within These Pages. (Creative Controversy)


Hinrichs, Bruce H., The Humanist


Editor's note:

Is science really becoming able to read minds--or at least read minds in the act of reading? That seems to depend on how one defines mind, how one defines reading, and what level of precision is being claimed. In the following exchange, psychologist Bruce H. Hinrichs responds to his critics--then two of his critics find areas of agreement and disagreement as they sum up the controversy.

I'M THE AUTHOR of "The Science of Reading Minds' in the May/June 2001 Humanist and wish to comment on a letter and essay published subsequently in response to my article --responses with which I have major disagreements.

A letter from neurologist D. S. Summers in the July/August issue stated that my conjectures "lie within the domain of the paranormal or pseudoscience." I find this insulting, since I have great distaste for such crackpot notions. Quite the contrary, my article is based on current scientific research, although I admit to raising provocative (and I thought, amusing) conjectures regarding the ramifications of future possible uses of brain-imaging technologies. To avoid similar complaints, I will include the names of the researchers.

Summers states that brain-imaging technology cannot detect thoughts because it merely measures "physiologic (electrical) dynamics ... but can't be extrapolated beyond configurations and frequencies." This statement is demonstrably false; but even worse, it reeks of the quaint (though wildly popular) view that the mind is a nonphysical thing--a spirit that is not part and parcel of the physical stuff of the brain. This dualist view is 350 years old and quite ridiculous. Thoughts don't exist in some supernatural world but consist of the physiological happenings of the brain. There is no ghost in the machine. A device that reads "physiologic dynamics" and produces "configurations and frequencies" of brain activity is precisely what is necessary to read the mind. What else would be needed?

Summers further insists that reading thoughts is "an impossibility." It seems odd that a self-proclaimed freethinker would use words such as can't and impossibility without checking the evidence. In fact, this "impossibility" has already been accomplished, albeit only at a modest level.

Similarly, in an article in the September/October 2001 Humanist, psychiatrist Nashaat Boutros and physiologist David Schafer state that mind reading by technology is "absurd when you consider that even the simplest thought, word, or idea is represented in the brain in a coded message involving the integrated functioning of perhaps thousands of neurons in very different parts of the brain." Well, the idea can't be terribly absurd--since it's already been done! Also, it is amusing and paradoxical that Boutros and Schafer state unequivocally what the physiological basis of a thought is (how in the world do they know that?) yet then claim there is no possible way to identify such a physiological basis. Hmmm?

Scientists don't yet know the precise physiology of consciousness, although Arash Sahraie, Michael Posner, Nikos K. Logothetis, William T. Newsome Roger Tootell, and many others have identified areas of the brain, and even specific neurons, that are part of the process of creating awareness. The entire physiology of consciousness is not yet known, but that doesn't mean that it can't be known. Every bit of logic and empirical evidence leads to the conclusion that we will eventually uncover the biological correlates of mental experiences.

Whether or not thoughts are distributed in "very different parts of the brain," as Boutros and Schafer contend, is currently unknown. Likely, it depends on one's definition of thought and on the nature of each particular thought. Indeed, some thoughts may be very localized. But if thoughts are the result of widely distributed brain networks, then how are they united or bound? Brain waves may be the means by which a brain unifies disparate areas of activity--a hypothesis in vogue among many cognitive neuroscientists (for example, Francis Crick and Terrence Sejnowski). …

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Never Mind? in Keeping with the Policy of the Humanist to Accommodate the Diverse Cultural Social, Political, and Philosophical Viewpoints of Its Readers, This Occasional Feature Allows for the Expression of Alternative, Dissenting, or Opposing Views on Issues Previously Broached within These Pages. (Creative Controversy)
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