On “The Future of the Mind”

Monday Musing” for July 14, 2014

Volume IV, No. 27/177


Book Review: Michio Kaku’s “The Future of the Mind”

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

The Future of The Mind
342 pages of text
10 pages of meticulously indexed notes relevant to each discussion
61 pages of index
Doubleday Publishing Company, Inc.
New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland


Review of Science Books Series

When a publisher sends a book for review, I routinely cast an editorial “screening” glance to separate substance from fluff by noting the book’s proportion of text to notes, bibliography, and index. A scholarly and substantial book usually carries an extensive set of notes and references for documentation of almost every line of the book. A high volume of notes and an extensive bibliography assure the reader that the book is not fluff. Such is the book “”The Future of The Mind” by Dr. Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City University of New York (CUNY). The book’s subtitle is “The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind”. The book does all that and more. Faithful readers of this space recall our review of books by psychiatrist Eric Kandel, 2000 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, “The Emergence of the New Science of Mind”, Stephen Hawking’s book “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”, 1989 Nobel Laureate in Medicine or Physiology “Retroviral Oncogenes”, by Harold Eliot Vamus, and many others. This book is a continuation of the series on science.

First, a word about the author:

As you see in the picture, Michio Kaku is of Tibetan descent. His grandfather immigrated to the United States to work in the cleanup efforts following the devastating 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Dr. Kaku was born on January 24, 1947, in San Jose, California. He first became attracted to science as a young child, and while a student at Cubberly High School in Palo Alto, he famously built an atom smasher in his parents’ garage. He eventually landed at Harvard University, where he graduated first in his physics class in 1968. From there it was on to the University of California at Berkeley, where he worked at the Berkeley Radiation Lab and earned his Ph.D. in 1972. The following year Kaku lectured at Princeton, but not long after, the Army drafted him. He was trained as an infantryman but was spared combat when the Vietnam War ended shortly before he was scheduled for deployment.

“The Future of the Mind” is Kaku’s ninth book. In my view he is a symphonist like Beethoven, Shubert, Mahler, and others, with nine symphonies. I think this, his latest book, is very much like Beethoven’s Ninth. It is not just plain physics, raw science and equations, but an intellectual celebration of possibilities. The book carries with it spiritual and artistic messages. For example, in the chapter about Einstein’s brain, the author speaks of plasticity of the brain, refuting the past notion that brain does not grow. He brings in subliminally Pauline theology of redemption, possibilities and hope. Brain grows…brain matures…brain gets bigger…brain gets “smarter”…

The volume consists of an acknowledgment listing the names of 11 Nobel Laureates, followed by six and a half pages that contain the names of luminaries in science, technology, nano-technology and journalism. They include Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan of Cosmos Studio and John Donoghue, creator of Braingate (see below). Physicians acknowledged include Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (University of North Carolina Medical School alumnus) and many bioethicists and environmentalists. The acknowledgment clearly reflects the author’s vast contacts. It also presents his humility and humaneness. The acknowlegment is followed by an introduction and three books.

Book I:

The Mind and Consciousness, and his viewpoint of consciousness;

Book II:

Mind over Matter deals with mental telepathy, and telekinesis, and moving objects by will through thoughts and memories. It offers explanation about  Einstein’s brain with the promise that we can be smarter, and our brain can grow. He gives the example of a 2011 study that analyzed the brains of “London’s famous taxicab drivers who have to laboriously memorize 25 thousand streets in the dizzying maze that makes up modern London. It takes three to four years to prepare for this arduous test, and only half of the trainees pass. The brains of the cab drivers who successfully passed the test were studied several years after the test, and it was found that the brains of the taxi drivers who passed the test successfully “were bigger and grown in volume.” He proposes while geniuses are born, brain’s capacity to grow and become “smarter” is undeniable. The evidence of plasticity of the brain and its capacity to grow, presented in Book II, are most exciting. This is where I make the connection between Kaku’s science and Pauline theology of hope, redemption, and possibilities. This is where I hear Beethoven Ninth’s message of joy belonging to human race…

Book III:

Altered Consciousness elaborates on a most attractive and comprehensive tour de force of artificial intelligence, mind as pure energy, and finally, the future of the mind.

The protean nature of the topics discussed in Book III reflects the author’s vast interests and penetrating curiosity. It has meritorious discussion on the diagnosis and treatment of depression. He cites the work of Dr Helen Mayberg and colleagues at Washington Medical School. Using brain scans, they identified an area of the brain, called Brodmann area 25 (also called the subcallosal cingulate region) in the cerebral cortex that is continuously hypoactive in depressed individuals. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) has astonishing results in relieving depression. Of course, clinically, we reserve this approach for those patients who are treatment resistant and do not respond to pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy.

The chapter on telekinesis illustrates cosmologist Stephen Hawking, a victim of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig disease) whose many books we have reviewed in this space (the latest was “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”) wore a neuroprosthetic device attached to his glasses with a special feature. Like an Electroencephalogram (EEG or brain wave test machine), it could connect his thoughts to a computer to maintain some contact with the outside world.

These neuroporostheses have profound effect on improving the quality of life of ALS patients, and of those who are quadriplegics, such as stroke victims. He cites the heart rendering story of Cathy Hutchinson who was “trapped” in her body, quadriplegic, for 14 years as the result of a massive stroke. Brown University scientist John Donoghue and colleagues placed a tiny chip on the top of her brain called Braingate (see above reference to John Donoghue) which is connected by wires to a computer. By simply thinking, she gradually learned to control the motion of her arm so to grasp objects.  Her thoughts or intentions are translated into action. This is the nearest thing to a modern day miracle.

The book looks into the future of artificial intelligence (AI) and its possibilities. The work of futurist Ray Kurzweil who received his PhD at MIT under Marvin Minsky, one of the founders of artificial intelligence, is cited. Dr. Kurzweil has predicted that by 2019, a $1000 PC will have the computing power of the human brain—twenty million billion calculations per second. He proposes that this number was not grabbed out of thin air. It is obtained by taking the one hundred billion neurons of the brain, multiplying one thousand connections per neuron, and two hundred calculations per second per connection.

As an aside, it might be useful to say a few words about the new age of connectomics.  We have had genomics, proteomics, and now we have entered connectomics which is the field of study of connectomes, and production of comprehensive maps of connections within an organism‘s nervous system, typically of the brain. These maps are being developed and studied with enormous speed. Harvard biologist Jeff Lichtman has devised a contraption, connecting a giant electron microscope to Magnetic Resonant Imaging (MRI) and functional MRI (fMRI) taking pictures of the connections of the neurons in the brain. The number of connections is astounding. It is in the trillions. Now back to the prediction of futurist Ray Kurzweil:

By 2029, a $1000 PC will be a thousand times more powerful than the human brain and the work of futurist Kurzweil;

By 2055, $1000 of computing power will equal the processing power of all human brains on the planet.

What is most impressive, this book, Kaku’s ninth which I call his Ninth Symphony, just like Beethoven’s Ninth, gives the reader a sense of transcendence and elevation. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, listening to the celestial voices of the Chorales singing “Freude, Tochter of Elyzium, deine Zauber binden weider was die Mode stren geteilt; alle mencchen werden Bruder who dein sanfter weilt.” “Joy, daughter of Elysium, your magic again units all that custom harshly torn apart, all men become brothers beneath your gentle hovering wing”, in Kaku’s latest book, I felt like I was floating among myriads of angels of hope, comfort, promise and beauty. Who knows, Kaku might be related to Beethoven or maybe Dali Lama. Reading Kaku elevates Augustinian awareness of the gift of our brain, this 2.5 pounds of mystery given to us for free, a sheer act of grace. We must enjoy discovering our brains by learning more and more, the highest form of joy. The latest work of Michio Kaku The Future of The Mind is all music and no noise. I highly recommend it to readers of all ages.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.


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