Saturday, April 14, 2007

Four Modest Predictions About the Future of Neuroscience

Some things are easy to predict. For instance: Basic human nature is no more likely to change on its own over the next 1000 years than it has changed over the previous 1000 years. Which is the same as saying it won't change unless we intervene in our own nature through genetic engineering or some other means.

On the other hand, some things are very difficult to predict. Anyone who can accurately predict which inventions will catch on with the public next year, or the year after, has a fortune waiting for them. Corporations will pay that much to reliably know which products will be successful, and just how successful they'll be. Many people are willing to take a guess for $50,000, but who can say for certain?

I myself try to stay clear of predicting anything that's not a sure thing. So, while I'm willing to bet that humans will still fall in love 10,000 years from now, I won't risk saying where the stock market will be in 10 days. Today, though, I'm going to break my rule and make a prediction that is somewhat more iffy than, "humans will still have symmetrical body plans centuries from now." I'm going to predict the future of neuroscience over the next 100 years.

If you are not familiar with what's happening in neuroscience, my predictions might seem immodest to you. Nevertheless, here they are:

First, by the end of this century, neuroscience will be the new physics and the new biology. That is, neuroscience will supplant physics and biology as the primary knowledge base drawn on by people trying to answer such questions as: "What is human nature?", "What is our place in the universe?", and even, "What is the meaning of life?" Physics and biology won't go away entirely, but they will become secondary in importance to neuroscience when it comes to those sorts of questions.

Second, neuroscience, in conjunction with other sciences and technologies, will create consumer technologies that are today the stuff of science fiction. Technologies that allow folks to read minds, predict someone's actions moments before they act, mentally control everything from appliances to computers, and perhaps even defend oneself.

Third, neuroscience will become militarized. Not only will it be used to do such things as allow airmen to fly superfast aircraft from the ground, but it will also be used to create weapons that disrupt an enemy's thoughts and feelings.

Last, at some point during the century someone will come up with a reliable way to create mystical experiences in people. Whether that will be through a pill or through a machine, I refuse to predict. But there will be "enlightenment on demand" as a sort of ultimate consumer product.

Those are my four modest predictions for neuroscience. They are no more than guesses, of course, and you should know that I stole most of them from things I've been reading over the past five years or so. I don't claim to be original about most of my predictions. I only claim to be a good thief.

Regardless of whether I'm right or wrong about any of these things, it's pretty certain neuroscience will become an increasingly important field. Anyone who is interested in quickly learning the basics of the science now has a wonderful opportunity to do so. Mike Cole at the blog, Neurevolution, is this month running a daily series of concise and clear posts, each on a crucial principle or discovery in the field. The series is very much worth reading.


Greta Christina said...

Do you think that in 100 years, we'll understand what consciousness is and how it works?

To me, that's the great mystery of our age (that, and where did space/time come from). There was a wonderful quote about it in the New Yorker (2/12/2007), in the "Two Heads" article by Larissa MacFarquhar, about philosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland, who were among the first modern-day philosophers to argue that philosophers needed to pay attention to science -- and in particular to neuroscience -- to understand how we think and why we think that way. The quote goes like this:

"Suppose you're a medieval physicist wondering about the burning of wood," Pat likes to say in her classes. "You're Albertus Magnus, let's say. One night, a Martian comes down and whispers, 'Hey, Albertus, the burning of wood is really rapid oxidation!' What could he do? He knows no structural chemistry, he doesn't know what oxygen is, he doesn't know what an element is -- he couldn't make any sense of it. And if some fine night that same omniscient Martian came down and said, 'Hey, Pat, consciousness is really blesjeakahgjfdl!' I would be similarly confused, because neuroscience is just not far enough along."

This completely blew my mind. I always like to think that we at least have the tools for understanding the great mysteries, even if we're not there yet. But of course, we don't necessarily. We may not have those tools for hundreds of years, long after all of us and all of our children and grandchildren are gone. It makes me kind of sad -- I think consciousness is completely fascinating, and it makes me sad to think that I may never understand what it is.

Paul said...

Greta, you ask a very interesting question about whether we will understand consciousness and how it works. I operate on the assumption that consciousness is dependent on physiological processes in the brain. I think we will indeed discover a great deal about those processes in this century -- most likely much sooner than later. I even think we will go beyond that and discover a physiological basis for mystical experiences. But will any of that mean we have "explained" consciousness or mystical awareness? That's a profoundly philosophical question, isn't it?

Susan Kuchinskas said...

I'd bet $50K on those predictions. But will understanding what consciousness is and how to create an enlightenment experience change how we think of ourselves and how we define consciousness?

When there's "enlightenment on demand," will we still think of it as enlightenment?

Paul said...

Those are very good questions, Susan! I think you've just given me material for a new post -- or two.

My hunch is that "enlightenment on demand" will be extraordinarily controversial. That's because I imagine it will be seen as extremely threatening to some religions. It might even be banned in some countries or jurisdictions, especially if it comes in the form of a drug.

How will it change how we think of ourselves? I've got to think about that one. That's a tough one, isn't it?