Minds and Machines
A conversation with Miguel Nicolelis

For over 20 years now, Dr Miguel Nicolelis has been blurring the line between science fiction and science fact, developing increasingly sophisticated ways of harnessing the thoughts of rats, monkeys and humans to drive mechanical devices in the rapidly emerging field of brain-machine interfaces. ...

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About Miguel Nicolelis:
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Miguel Nicolelis is a neuroscientist and physician known for his pioneering research on Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI) and neuroprosthetics in human patients and non-human primates. He is Anne W. Deane Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Neurobiology, Biomedical Engineering and Psychology ...

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From Science Fiction to Science Fact (Commentary Excerpt)

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

~ Arthur C. Clarke

As any marketing professional will tell you, knowing how to properly brand an idea is essential for its success. Indeed, all too often, it can be even more important than the actual idea itself.

The field of Phrenology is a good case in point. A deliberately constructed combination of two heavyweight Greek concepts – phren (mind) and logos (structured knowledge) – its very existence argued strongly for its inherent validity. After all, how could a field dedicated to amassing a structured knowledge of the mind be anything less than rigorously scientific?

Well, it turns out that it can. Phrenology had its day, of course. And to be fair, when developed by Franz Joseph Gall in the late 18th century, it represented a significant advance in our understanding, emphasizing as it did the importance of explaining mental states through the neurophysiology of the brain rather than through the previous window of religious or philosophical abstraction.

But by the time people started engaging in detailed measurements of skull sizes to determine which one of the 27 so-called “brain organs” was most responsible for someone’s personality, it was clear that the field had descended to the depths of pseudo-science from which it never recovered.

Yet aspects of its legacy persist. According to Duke University’s renowned neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, Gall’s general framework of dividing the brain into distinct, localized areas that control separate aspects of human behavior, “morphed into one of the key dogmas of twentieth-century neuroscience”. A dogma, as it happens, that Dr. Nicolelis is firmly convinced is nothing less than flat-out wrong...

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