I don’t remember whether or not I ever mentioned that I’ve had a couple of novels published. It’s no big deal; I only mention it because I’d like to tell you about something. You see, quite some time ago I wrote a science fiction novel in which computers had become small wristwatch-sized gadgets that had no keyboards or mice because they were controlled by the mind of the user. The user saw the computer screen in a “minds-up” display in his head like the heads-up display in the cockpit of a fighter aircraft, where the pilot can see how his weapons are aimed, or view other data he needs.
Being as old as I am, I’ve been reading and writing science fiction for a long time, before the days when it began to change to stories where anything is possible, even things that will never happen because they are contrary to the laws of physics. Back when I started reading science fiction in the 1940s, stories were based on hard science; in other words they were based on things that could reasonably happen some day because they were rooted in scientific fact. Sadly, that’s not always true these days.
Anyway, it comes as no news to most people that our brains produce weak electrical signals as we think. Obviously, the possibility of controlling something with those signals has always existed, but now it is a fact. It has been done.
Here’s a headline from CNN: “A toy helicopter controlled by nothing but brainwaves could be available to the public just in time to hover under this year’s Christmas tree.”
To scientists and sci-fi fans it was inevitable.
Mind you, that bird ain’t gonna fly too high and fancy. All it can do is go up when you concentrate on wanting it to go up, and come back down when you get too pooped to keep focusing on it. It’s a start, though, and mind controls will keep improving. Why? Because of something known as feedback. All this, by the way, is not new. I was teaching this kind of thing in my teaching methods classes as far back as 1967. It’s part of learning theory.
Think back to how you learned to throw a ball at something. You picked up the ball. You threw it. You either hit the target or missed it. If you missed it you tried again. If you missed again, you tried again. Each time you threw the ball you were receiving feedback; that is, you could see where it went, and so you knew how to adjust your throw.
Each time you adjusted your throw a message traveled down a neural pathway that controlled your movements. Sooner or later you created a neural pathway that was correct, or as correct as it was going to get. That was called — ta! ta! — learning. It’s the same thing that happened when you were a baby. At first, all you could do was wriggle like a worm. Then you learned to reach for things, to crawl, to stand up, to walk, to run, to chase the other sex, to treat a hangover...
Here’s something to think about. Do anything. Doesn’t matter what. Try — say — pointing your right index finger at your right knee. Now, tell me how you did it. You don’t know, do you? Nor do I. Nor does anyone. We do not know how we do things. We’ve just “learned” to do them.
Try writing your name on a piece of paper. How did your hand know: (a) What to write? (b) How to make all those squiggly movements? We don’t know. We are unable to see our minds working, but they ignore our ignorance and work anyway.
And now for a surprise. What if you tried to get your mind to do something that seems impossible? What if you tried to — say — lower your heart blood pressure, or raise it? Could you do it? Yes, if there were some form of feedback; otherwise you wouldn’t know if you were succeeding or failing. But with feedback ... ?
Suppose we put a blood pressure cuff on your wrist, put the screen where you can read it, and then ask you to “want” to lower your pressure? What will happen? Amazingly, little by little you will learn to do it, just as you learned to throw that ball. In fact, you will get very good at it, and with practice you’ll be able to do the same with any function you can get feedback on — blood pressure, heart rate, temperature. You can even lower the temperature in your right hand and raise it in your left ear at the same time. Humans are very good at learning how to do things.
Suppose we were to put a receiver of some kind on your head that would pick up brain waves and transit signals to something, the way that little helicopter is going to run? Let’s say that you tried to run your television set that way. Given time and feedback you would learn to do it, and once you learned to do it you would be able to do it all the time —through your transmitter of course.
Take a big breath before you think about it, Johnny.
A lot of things we use today were science fiction just 40 years ago.