As a former neuroscientist, a question I am often asked is, “Do you think neuroscientists will ever be able to read people’s minds?”.
My initial reaction to this question to this used to be along the lines of, “Never – our minds are far too complex for any technology to even begin to decode our thoughts,” but upon further research, I would now say that neuroscientists are already reading minds.
In recent years, a fast growing understanding of how our nervous system works has enabled a fusion between man and machine, once only envisioned in science fiction, to become a reality. Bionic limbs have been built into amputees, scientists are beginning to restore a sense of touch to these patients, and we are on our way to restoring vision in the blind. In other news, the first human head transplant may happen in just a few years.
Deciphering the function of individual neurons
With over 100 billion neurons, understanding the human brain and how our experiences are represented by neurons is, to say the least, no easy feat. Although we have an understanding of the major brain structures and their functions, individual neural connections greatly differ from person to person, being altered by activity and learning – which makes the idea of mind reading seem even more difficult to achieve. However, a combination of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG) and lesion studies have helped in giving us a better idea of what some of our experiences look like in the brain – even at the level of individual cells. These studies have given us important insights into how a range of our experiences are translated by the brain into sensations and planned action.
In my last post, I wrote about the finding of head direction cells, which are active in response to the specific angle and direction of your head’s orientation in space and are thought to help us navigate. Many other studies have pinpointed neuron-specific functions in the human brain, for example, neurons that respond specifically to seeing edges and lines of different orientations.
In 2005, researchers even pinned down a specific neuron in a patient with its activity levels tied to Halle Berry. Pictures of the actress, her caricature, images of her as Catwoman, and even reading her name elicited a response from this neuron. However, although an interesting finding, it’s been pointed out that there are simply not enough neurons in the brain to represent each and every object that we see in everyday life. In this study, each participant had approximately 100 electrodes implanted into their brain – not exactly an everyday scenario for the volunteers! Many other thought-decoding experiments involve the use of fMRI, where participants have to lie very still inside a dark machine whilst images are presented to them on a computer screen – again, not so close to anyone’s day-to-day reality.
The question is, can results from such studies be reliably extrapolated to real life scenarios, where we are experiencing a range of emotions and interactions, and a continuous stream of images and sounds?
I can tell what you’re thinking
More recently, in 2013, Josef Parvizi and his team at Stanford University were able to locate the population of neurons that are active specifically when we think about numbers in real life scenarios. That same year, Yukiyasu Kamitani and his team at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Japan were able to identify categories featured in people’s dreams with an accuracy of 60%.
Thought provoking technology
Could this be the advent of telepathic technologies? And could Mel Gibson’s mind-reading abilities in What Women Want ever become a reality? Perhaps one day, scientists inspired by the thought-controlled weapon system in Firefox, will develop thought-controlled technologies to become the next big thing. Just think, being able to turn on lights with the blink of an eye (or more accurately the firing of some neurons).
Telepathy through brain scans
In 2006, Adrian Owen and his colleagues at Cambridge University discovered that people in a vegetative state can respond to questions when under MRI. Observing the changing patterns of brain activity in vegetative patients enabled the researchers to glean responses to these questions. This is fascinating, as asking patients whether they feel pain could be beneficial in dosing pain killers, and opens up the possibility of involving them in decisions regarding their care. Research of this kind could lead to the development of devices that enable brain-damaged patients to interact with the world.
This scan depicts patterns of the vegetative patient’s electrical activity over the head when they attended to the designated words, and when they were distracted by novel but irrelevant words. http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/patient-in-vegetative-state-not-just-aware-but-paying-attention Photograph: Clinical Neurosciences/University of Cambridge
Neuromarketing and the pursuit of lie detection
Using a combination of brain imaging and vision tracking techniques to predict and inform what we will buy, neuromarketing is a new and growing field. The concept of neuromarketing rests on the assumption that many of our thoughts and emotions occur before we are consciously aware of them. Neuromarketers hold that peering into a person’s brain/subconscious can give greater understanding of what a person wants, enabling marketers to better identify, predict and influence consumer preferences and behaviours. For example, the neuromarketing firm Innerscope was able to predict whether a film would become a blockbuster by examining moments during a film when different parts of a person’s brain were highly active. Another study found that many who prefer the taste of Pepsi still choose Coca-Cola. Other firms are applying these imaging methods in pursuit of lie detection and truth verification.
But can we really better understand and predict peoples preferences by interpreting patterns of brain activity? And is this more effective than simply communicating with people in real-life? Neuromarketers claim that their methods enable them to understand what people are truly feeling, rather than relying on their responses during focus groups, as it can be common for people to tell market researchers what they think they want to hear. Others agree that focus groups will never get to the truth, but rather than relying on brain activity patterns, a more personal approach is needed. No one has yet proven that neuromarketing techniques are better predictors of our behaviour than real-life answers – just because we find an advertisement engaging, it does not necessarily translate into us buying the product.
Can you see what I see?
Not everyone interprets information in the same way, and how our world is perceived differs from person to person. The Dress is a prime example of this. Could we ever read people’s minds to the extent that we would be able to predict their subjective perception of reality?
For me, the answer comes quickly – just read my mind.
This article was originally published on the Guardian Online.