Monday, May 9, 2011

Miguel Nicolelis' "Beyond Boundaries"

I had high hopes for this book. Its subtitle is "the new neuroscience of connecting brains with machines". But the book didn't live up to my expectations. It was both too technical and too superficial. I enjoyed the bits about Brazil and soccer and Nicolelis' grandmother, but they were extraneous to the purpose of the book.

Reading the book gave me a lot of techincal details about embedding sensors, getting signals, decoding them, and using them to actuate things, but I didn't really get a good feel for just what is being connected to what and where it is all going.

I found it odd that Nicolelis complains about "reductionist" science and the fact that describing one neuron in nauseating detail doesn't really explain the mind. He sets the reader's expectation that his approach will open the window on the soul and let us understand everything. But his multi-sensor approach strikes me as just another scientific approach. Sure it is a little more realistic to get 25 probes instead of 1 or 100 instead of 25. But despite his claim that he wants to under how a brain "thinks" he never explains it. It is as mysterious after I finish the book as when I started.

I'm leery of his BMI (Brain Machine Interface). If the brain is 100 billion collaborating neurons, I just don't see that "interfacing" with a 100, a 1000, or even a million gives you some "deep" insight into the brain. He rants against theories that locate function in areas of the brain and he rhapsodizes about malleability of the brain, but as far as I can tell, the brain is organized into regions. Sure it has some malleability, but it is limited. My mother suffered left neglect and as much as she struggled to "train" her left side, she never regained any real sense of it. As far as I know, if you suffer aphasia you can't "exercise" your brain and get it back.

In the last chapter he paints a brave new world fantasy about linking many minds with his BMIs. But I find all this laughable and crude. He talks as though he will link conscious mind to conscious mind. But we know that the conscious mind is a fabulist which "explains" behavior after the fact. It isn't clear that the conscious mind is in charge of anything. What's the point of connecting conscious minds? So what do you connect? He never addresses this. He stays at the "happy days are here" level of speculating about some undefined connection among people. But what for? What arises from these "conjoined minds"? He never makes that clear.

The book is too academic, too person, too futuristic, and not enough plain old explanation. He describes how he was very impressed by Isaac Asimov's book The Brain. But Asimov has a wonderful writing style and he went right to work explaining stuff so that when you closed the book at the end you felt you had learned something. I don't get that same sense with this book. Too bad. I do believe that Nicolelis is an interesting character with a fascinating story to tell, but this book was a failed experiment. He needs to work with a commercially successful writer to iron out the wrinkles and learn to "tell a story" for his general readers.

I wouldn't say "don't read this book". It has some interesting material. But I would advise to skip over the boring details. Also, abandon any hope of learning anything serious about neuroscience. Just enjoy Nicolelis' enthusiasms and his poignant reminiscences of Brazil, soccer, and his grandma.

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