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20190310 – The New Mind Readers



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The main idea of this book is to review history of neural imaging development, its current technology, and prospects for the new ones, and discuss methodology of its application and experimental finding. The other important idea here is to present the current technological capability of brain imaging that allows for some form of mind reading.  Author also analyzes societal and ethical consequences and presents medical and biological aspects of these new capabilities.


  1. Thinking on 20 Watts

This chapter starts with description of the brain and electro-chemical processes that occur when it works. There is usual analogy between brain and computer, but it follows by better than usual explanation of why and how it is different. Then author describes history of neuroimaging and how fMRI allows tracing of what is happening inside of working brain. Author also provides examples of experiments without use of neuroimaging, typical for period before fMRI such as experiment with best ways of memorizing something. At the end of chapter author provides road map for the book.

2 The Visible Mind

This chapter goes a lot more into history, starting with use of positron emission tomography (PET) in 1980 that allowed accumulate data and knowledge about relation between brain activity and blood flow, electrochemical activities in the brain and how it could be picked up by magnetic resonance. All this eventually led to development of fMRI that become the most popular tool for analyzing human mind.

3 fMRI Grows Up

This chapter traces development of fMRI technology and its increasing usability. The first important issue was linearity of fMRI reaction with neuron activity. This was confirmed by Logothetis’s study. The second was an attempt to find consistent functional modules in the brain. It produced an interesting result for identifying fusiform area (FFA) as module used for expert recognition of objects with general recognition mainly distributed to different parts of brain. The follow on research-developed ability to recognized specific patterns of brain activity linked to specific inputs.  New technic was developed to trace movement of water molecules in the brain: “diffusion weighted MRI” (DWI). It was used for Human Connectivity Project mapping human brain connectivity. Author links it to general theoretical development of complex networks analysis. Author also discusses some false analytics by using example of fMRI analysis of dead salmon’s brain. The point here is that fMRI analysis based on lots of statistical correlations which is quite dangerous tool due to correlation / causation problem and dependent/independent variables.

4 Can fMRI Read Minds?

This chapter is about attempts to link fMRI imaging to actual activity of the brain in order to decode this activity into meaningful chain of thoughts and words. There are some real achievements in this area for example author presents comparison of actual object presented to the person and reconstruction of these object based on fMRI data:

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One practical implementation is to use fMRI to identify consciousness in brain damaged individuals in coma. Another problem author discusses here is chronic pain, which is related to different parts of the brain than acute pain. It is a very serious problem not only for treatment, but also for need to establish that it exists. The fMRI technology was recently allowed for use in legal cases related to chronic pain diagnostics.

5 How Do Brains Change over Time:

This chapter is a bit less about technology and a bit more about brains or, more precisely, about how brain changes over time and how it incorporates experiences into its material structure. In addition to well-known facts of brain changing with time from pruning of connections in the brain of infant to London taxi drivers overdevelopment of spatial areas. What is new and interesting here is research, which demonstrated that any overdevelopment of one area occurs at the expense of another areas. Author describes study that he conducted on himself by regularly going through fMRI analysis. It demonstrated changes in individual brain over time, dependency on external factors like caffeine and food, and necessity of detailed research on individuals versus mixing results from different people because every brain differs from others. The last finding is probably most important because it demonstrates that in order to be effective neuroscience application should be personalized.

6 Crime and Lies

This is about attempts to use fMRI in courts as sort of lie detector and why these attempts so far remain quite problematic. Author also discusses brain development and responsibility, supporting idea that underdeveloped brain of teenagers makes it improper to keep them responsible for their actions. Author discusses not only lie detection with fMRI, but also crime prediction feasibility. It follows by detailed discussion of research literature and statistical method used to evaluate how useful fMRI would be for real world decision making. Author mainly calls to be on the side of caution, avoiding jump to conclusions about the validity of fMRI methods.

  1. Decision Neuroscience

This is about attempts to understand how people make choices and decision and moreover how to influence these choices either for marketing or other reasons. It starts with discussion of difference between human decision making and statistical and formal logic decision-making that are quite different. Humans are much more risk averse than formal logic or game theory recommends, they have different attitude to time value, risk evaluation, and different “quick and slow” approaches to decision making either based on habit and heuristics or formal analysis of situation.

Finally author discusses impact of advertisement, both consumer and political, when fMRI reading demonstrates different impact then self-reporting. Here is a nice graph showing this:

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In short, the neural focus group is considerably more effective than regular with conscious responses.

8 Is Mental Illness Just a Brain Disease?

This is about improvement in understanding of mental illnesses that was achieved by using fMRI technology. It starts with discussion of genetic component, which is not only strong, but also is similar to cross of different mental disorders. Author specifically identifies areas of brain where its physiology differentiate in people with mental disease for usual. Author also discusses here difficulties in diagnosis, imagining challenges for fMRI and emerging field of computational psychology.

9 The Future of Neuroimaging

The final chapter is about future of use of neuroimaging, fMRI enhancements, its limitations and how these limitations may be addressed by using new technologies. Specifically author discusses technology – constantly increasing magnetic power of fMRI devises, use of near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), and others. At the end of chapter author discusses methodological issues – difficulties with results reproduction and need for more transparency.


It is kind of exiting to read about all this new knowledge about human brain and it’s working obtained via fMRI imaging. It gives us a lot more power of understanding of how it works, but also a lot of power of manipulating it with objective to achieve some result – for example voting for a specific political party. It even seemingly promise to provide technology that would allow differentiating between lie and truthful statements, bringing dramatic changes to legal system. However I do not think that it would dramatically change society. I would expect medium level changes that would be to the better. Inability to avoid control will direct people to do much more active political participation in defining what controls are allowed, probably making a lot of currently illegal activities into legal. I am also doubtful that it is feasible manipulating people effectively on the long run. I would expect that any new method of manipulation would cause creation of some new method, maybe technological to reject this manipulation. I also think that it is quite possible that consciousness can override internal impulses generated by external interference. In short, I am quite optimistic about future of freedom.

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