Reading Human Gene Codes and Minds

In an interview with Sigrid Kõiv, UT Professor of Cognitive and Forensic Psychology Talis Bachmann explains the possibilities of and problems with reading minds. The professor’s research interests include consciousness studies, visual awareness, advertising effects and much more.

Talis Bachmann

University of Tartu Professor Talis Bachmann. Image credit: Liis Treimann / Scanpix

Is the solution to the great problem of consciousness already in sight?

Well, sometimes I am an optimist, and sometimes I am not. I cannot see any great discovery around the corner that would be comparable to the unravelling of the genome structure. Data are becoming increasingly precise but the influx of new information brings with it new research problems that more often than not are as complicated as the previous ones.

The nature of consciousness is largely still a mystery. The same brain can be asleep or awake. In one case – dreamless sleep – we are not conscious of anything, but in other cases, even if we close our eyes, we can still imagine the space around us and we can hear.

So, the conscious state is difficult to understand. The qualitative changes that occur in the brain when it transfers from an unconscious state to a state of consciousness remain a mystery that many scientists are trying to solve.

But in addition to this fascinating research problem there is a lot of routine research to be done, because even if we don’t know exactly how the brain supports consciousness it is still possible for us to study the rules underlying our reactions and operations. For example, we can study how fast and under what circumstances we make decisions, or what influences us when we make decisions and how emotions are generated.

I believe that an important breakthrough will be achieved when researchers learn to accurately interpret the signals recorded with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

Obviously, it will be a painstaking process which cannot be accomplished successfully without computers. These future algorithms will help us translate the information gathered from MRI scans into the language of human thoughts, conditions and intentions.

Presently, the specialists studying MRI scans of brain activity can perhaps be compared to students who have learned Chinese for two weeks, who know a couple of characters and can say something, but for the most part the rest remains a mystery. But, in principle, they will soon be capable of reading Chinese text without effort. MRI may actually contain all the necessary information, but we cannot yet interpret it.

Does this mean that soon it will be possible to read people’s minds?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t believe that it will ever become possible to read people’s thoughts using technology built into mobile phones. It would require huge amounts of data processing and the consent of the person whose mind is being read. Moreover, the influence of chaos and coincidence involved would just be too large.

Rather, I think that genetics still has many surprises in store for us. Genetics is becoming all the more closely related with psychological personality studies, the study of human social networks, and history – not to mention health studies.

Mapping of the “genome landscape” is becoming increasingly precise and fast. I predict that very soon a printout of a person’s genetic information will become rather inexpensive and reliable. But the implications of all these developments will be completely unpredictable – especially as regards neurogenetics.

For example, is it possible that some individual peculiarities which have been considered to be primarily the result of upbringing and education are in fact innate? Or would it be possible to predict a person’s choices and behaviour based on her gene code? Some discoveries have already emerged in this field.

For instance, it has been found that there are links between a person’s appearance and behaviour. It was once thought that a person’s character is reflected in his appearance. Later this notion was ditched as ‘unscientific’. In the last ten years some evidence has emerged indicating that it may not entirely be pseudoscience. But the number of studies is still not sufficient to say anything definite yet.

Could new science, for instance, demonstrate that people with large ears are mean?

No, I don’t think anything of the sort could ever be possible. Everything that has been attributed to single physical traits – such as small eyes, thin lips, etc. – has not been supported by solid proof.

However, what has been discovered are the links between combinations of traits and the psychological characteristics of a person. It turns out that people can intuitively assess another person’s personality based on these traits. Our personality traits are somehow encoded in our facial features, but we don’t know exactly how a person evaluates them.

As a matter of fact, it is a very sensitive field, because it has a wide range of potential applications in politics, partner selection, day-to-day work and business.  Also, research in this field would immediately be associated with an attempt to place people into “castes”, or a desire to preselect people deemed fit to become good athletes, scientists, and generals. We have no idea where this would lead us eventually.

However, by choosing not to research these topics we would just hide our heads in the sand, while others may choose to continue. But what if the aims of those who forge ahead are dubious? We have the responsibility to research these topics – if not for other reasons, then in order not to yield control over science and technology to evil forces.

A hundred years ago there was some research going on in the field of semiconductors, and there were also studies in genetics, but they were a far cry from real applications. However, a world without microchips, or medicine without modern genetics, now seems unimaginable. Perhaps in my field a massive transfer of knowledge into practice will occur in tens or maybe even hundreds of years from now.

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