« | Home | »

Shh…

Tags: |

If you remember the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, you’ll feel a moment of nostalgia at reading about this exciting scientific breakthrough. The tomorrow of Tomorrow’s World, like all tomorrows, never came. The marvellous invention or brand new piece of research that was going to change our lives for ever (tomorrow, obviously) never quite got to the point where it arrived in your kitchen or at a hospital near you. The marvellous machine today is the fMRI scanner. Today’s promise for tomorrow’s fMRI magic is that we can, finally, know what is going on in people’s minds. Other people’s minds. This is the great mystery and annoyance we all have to put up with, though if it ever comes to pass, I would be most eager to borrow it and find out what’s going on in my own mind first.

By a series of not yet even slightly perfected transformations of sound, magnetic resonance images, colour, waves, computer modelling of electrical signals, and the rate at which parts of the brain fired, neuroscientists felt they were able to reconstruct some of the words spoken to and then thought by their subjects: ‘Turning the brain waves they saw back into sound on the basis of what the computer model suggested those waves meant.’ Plus the number you first thought of. Listening to the incomprehensible sound of thoughts broadcast on Today this morning (I mean the ones in the piece about thought imaging, not necessarily the rest of the programme), I think even Raymond Baxter would have resisted the temptation to include it in Tomorrow’s World.

The justification for the research is that comatose patients and those with locked-in syndrome would be able to communicate with the outside world, and this would clearly be beneficial if it ever worked. But I don’t think this is really why the media have picked up so excitedly on the story. It’s more that we might all have to get naked and be known by anyone passing who is holding a portable thought-sound transformer – or an iPhone with an app for it. Everyone would know which books you hadn’t really read, what you thought of everyone, that you hadn’t actually got the flu, and that you were crazy in love with your mother, father, best friend’s partner or all three.

Trying for a bit more gravitas and to make it more Tomorrow’s Worldy, John Humphrys worried less about being overheard thinking his thoughts about his co-presenters, but put the Dr Strangelove case. You know, the mad scientist who takes all technological discoveries and ends the world with them (although the world still has yet to end in spite of all manner of scientific, industrial and technical revolutions – OK, we may be close). Professor Bob Knight, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, was having none of it, and believes, as any scientist with a fundable new project would, that the biggest danger is in not doing this research. The Dr Strangelove scenario is, he says, above his paygrade.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.


  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • andymartinink on Reacher v. Parker: Slayground definitely next on my agenda. But to be fair to Lee Child, as per the Forbes analysis, there is clearly a massive collective reader-writer ...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: And in Breakout, Parker, in prison, teams up with a black guy to escape; another white con dislikes it but accepts the necessity; Parker is absolutely...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: Parker may not have the integrity and honesty of Marlowe, but I'd argue that Richard Stark writes with far more of both than Raymond Chandler does: Ch...
    • Christopher Tayler on Reacher v. Parker: Good to see someone holding up standards. The explanation is that I had thoughts - or words - left over from writing about Lee Child. (For Chandler se...
    • Geoff Roberts on Reacher v. Parker: ..."praised in the London Review of Books" Just read the article on Lee Child in a certain literary review and was surprised to find this rave notice...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement