Once thought of as something that would only ever exist in the annals of science fiction, a new study published by the University of Washington says mind reading may soon be a reality.
According to The Guardian:
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Their research, published in PLOS One on Wednesday, demonstrated “that a non-invasive brain-to-brain interface (BBI) can be used to allow one human to guess what is on the mind of another human”. With only the use of brainwaves and a specifically designed computer, they examined the potential for exchanging basic information without saying a word.
“We are actually still at the beginning of the field of interface technology and we are just mapping out the landscape so every single step is a step that opens up some new possibilities,” said lead author Andrea Stocco, an assistant professor of psychology and a researcher at UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.
The experiment had five pairs of men and women between the ages of 19 and 39 play a game similar to 20 questions. Each group had a “respondent”, who picked an object from lists provided, and an “inquirer”, who tried to guess the object by asking yes or no questions. They were placed in different rooms, approximately one mile apart.
After a question was picked, it appeared on the respondent’s computer screen. They had two seconds to look at the question and one second to choose an answer. To do so, they looked at one of two flashing lights that were labeled yes or no. Each answer generated slightly different types of neural activity.
The respondent’s brain waves were picked up by brain wave-reading technology, such as an electroencephalogram (EEG), and sent to the inquirer. With the use of a magnetic coil behind their head, the inquirer’s visual cortex was stimulated, so that if the answer was yes, they saw a flash of light. If the answer was no, they saw nothing.
Each group of participants took part in 20 games. According to the study, they correctly guessed the object in 72% of the trials with the device, compared with 18% of the control games.
These researchers used this type of “brain-to-brain” interface before in an August 2013 pilot study. Two researchers participated and a message was sent from one to the other in order to communicate when to move their hand at the right moment during a video game. Their most recent research is more complex, as “there was no conscious processing of the message by the second human” in the 2013 experiment, according to Rajesh Rao, a professor in the department of computer science and engineering.
But for now “the content is still very limited”, according to Stocco. Eventually they hope to transmit more complex thoughts.
“The advantage of a brain-to-brain interface would be to transmit the signals that are actually hard to verbalize, things that are not quite easy to put down on paper, or to write about like the way we feel, emotions,” Stocco said.
Beyond the ability to share abstract knowledge, the researchers believe the study could eventually lead to some medical advancements.
“Eventual medical applications could include facilitating communication between paralyzed individuals and their loved ones, guiding rehabilitation, etc,” Rao said.
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