To many, the phrase “mind reading,” probably conjures up an image of a futuristic, Orwellian society where the government can track and control your every thought. We might think that this technology is so far removed from us that we will never live to see it. Well folks, it looks like the future came early! A paper published this week in Nature Communications (the premiere science journal) by scientists at Stanford University demonstrated a technique that is, in essence, mind reading (albeit a very primitive form). Let’s take a look at how they “mind read” and what the implications of this study are.
How can you see into someone’s brain? Well, there are a couple of different ways. One of the more commonly used methods is to do an electroencephalogram (EEG). Basically, this involves putting a bunch of electrodes on your skull to measure electric signals that are being fired by neurons within your brain (for a good review on how neurons actually generate signals, check out this article). You can see a picture of a guy who’s getting an EEG over there on the right. However, when using this method, there is an inherent problem in measuring the electric signals being processed by your brain. Notice how the electrodes (little white circles that the wires are coming out of) are on top of the skull? This makes recording signals from the brain difficult for 2 main reasons: 1) signals from deep down get all mixed up as they travel to the electrodes and 2) the skull itself messes up the signals. While EEGs work relatively well to see activity in wide brain regions, these Stanford scientists wanted to get geared and look even closer.
Josef Parvizi (the dude who led the study) and his team used a technique known as intracranial recording. Instead of putting the electrodes on top of the skull, they place them directly inside the brain. If you want to measure the signals being produced by neurons, why not get as close as possible? This type of recording circumvents some of those problems with EEG we were talking about earlier. Now, you are all probably seeing one tiny problem with this… doesn’t it hurt like fuck to put electrodes inside your brain? It turns out that whereas your brain processes pain signals from every other part of your body, the brain itself has no sense of touch or pain. This means, when you cut open a skull to do a brain surgery, the doctor could be touching your noggin all he wants and you wouldn’t feel it. This is actually the way in which doctors look for seizures in epileptics. Scope that picture from UC Davis over there on the right. You can have all of these wires literally inside your head while being conscious and moving around and not feel a damn thing. Pretty sweet huh?
Now that we know how to see into the brain, what can we do with that information? Well, Josef and his crew put some electrodes into subjects in an area of the brain that was thought to be used for doing mathematical calculations. They had these people sit in a very controlled environment and asked them to solve some simple arithmetic problems while the scientists monitored the readings from the electrodes. What they found was that, as predicted, specific groups of neurons lit up like a Christmas tree when these people were doing math problems. Well it’s all jolly and good that this can work in a quiet environment when none of the other areas of brain are doing much, but what about in a real life situation? Here comes the cool part of the story. Josef and company then took the subjects and had them chat to some people who brought up topics that were related to numbers. During the conversation, whenever the subjects had to refer to numbers, the same areas that were active in the controlled experiment lit up again. Basically, Josef and company have showed that you can get a very precise recording of which neurons are firing when someone thinks about numbers. This is a truly watershed moment for “mind-reading.” No longer are we looking at broad areas of the brain but specific groups of cells.
As I alluded to earlier, this is just the beginning of exploring the functional connectivity of the brain. Many, many studies will have to be done in lots of humans in order to get a really clear picture of which neurons are firing as a result of different thinking processes. However, I have no doubt in my mind that at some point in time (perhaps not too far away) we will truly be able to read minds. This will assuredly require an upgrade in technology so that we can see the activity of not groups of neurons, but individual neurons in real time. You would then have to teach a computer program how to interpret all of this data by doing some calibration. Let’s say you have all of these electrodes in your brain and someone tells you to think of the color “blue.” When you think about “blue,” a very specific pattern of neurons will fire and the electrodes can pick up these signals. Now, when the program sees this pattern again, it will know you were thinking about blue. In this way, you can begin to teach the program how you think. Being able to read minds sounds great if we’re trying to put something in the next Matrix movie but do we want this to happen in real life?
As this technology becomes more common, social discourse about this type of information will have to take place. Of course, one implication of mind-reading is the complete erosion of privacy by a third party agency whether it be the government or some corporation. We will definitely have to put safeguards in place to protect our minds from others. On the other hand, incredible advancements could be made by the spread of such a technology. Whereas now you can press a couple buttons and send a message around the world in the blink of an eye, imagine being able to do that just by thinking it. We truly are approaching telepathy with our power of communication. Many people have recognized the significance of being able to precisely record brain activity and this technology is already being employed to diagnose seizures and to develop prosthetics for paraplegics. Perhaps not surprisingly, Google has plans to make a microchip that could potentially allow you to search for information just by thinking.
Clearly, being able to precisely record people’s brain activity has far-reaching consequences. Is it possible that mind-reading can be used in a bad way? Of course. Any new technology can. Have human beings ever shied away from developing a disruptive technology that could have some downside? Fuck no. Will we continue to transcend our biological limits like we have for our entire existence? Absolutely.
What do you guys think about mind reading? Will it open the doors to unheralded realms of knowledge and communication? Or will it spell the end of society as we know it?