Scientists have used new technology for humans to communicate via thought, a study claims. The study, published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports, said subjects worked successfully to play a Tetris-like game between two rooms. This “Internet of Brains” raises fresh concerns about spying on thoughts.
According to the Scientific Reports paper, two test subjects sat in one room with a puzzle video game similar to the 1980s smash hit Tetris. There, wired to noninvasive brainwave-reading technology that scientists call BrainNet, the subjects focused on whether or not the blocks appearing on the screen should be rotated or not before being placed in an empty spot, in order to fit. A third person wired to BrainNet, who could not see the screen, chose whether or not to rotate the block with an input mechanism like a video game controller. They made the choice based on which message they believed they were receiving. The subjects’ success rates were over 81 percent. With no signs of this field’s development stopping, it’s little surprise that concerns over privacy of communication are already extending to our brainwaves.
Brain-Reading, Not Mind-Reading
The science of monitoring brain activity only dates back a few decades, and, in even that short time span, it has evolved considerably.
“In the 1990s, neuroscientists repurposed magnetic resonance and other imaging techniques to give us pictures of active brains,” said Dr. Indre Viskontas, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco and Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “There are, of course, several different ways in which we can measure brain activity in a healthy person.”
The most common form is reading electrical potentials or “averaged neural activity” across many regions of the brain by attaching electrodes to various parts of our heads, Dr. Viskontas said. This is called an electroencephalogram, or EEG.
Another example is the functional MRI (fMRI). With an fMRI, “we can see where cells have just been active by tracking the amount of oxygen in the blood flowing to that region,” she said. “Since active cells require oxygen, we can use magnetism to detect changes in the oxygenation of blood in different parts of the brain.”
PET scans—or positron emission tomography scans—involve injecting a radioactive substance into the bloodstream to find similar blood-oxygen readings as an fMRI. However, according to Dr. Viskontas, PET scans are largely falling out of fashion in measuring cognition due to the less invasive fMRI. PET scans, she said, are now largely used to measure a lack of activity and test for neurodegenerative disorders instead.
The Long Road Ahead
Despite major developments like BrainNet, neural imaging is still in its earliest stages. Commonly used tools like EEG scans, fMRI’s, and PET scans are, to quote Dr. Viskontas, fairly blunt instruments.
“It’s a bit like trying to understand everything that’s happening in a city made up of millions of inhabitants by tracking where the lights get turned on at night, or which suburb is more populated,” she said. “Sure, if there’s a major event in one part of the city, like a championship basketball game ending, we’ll be able to see a change in the overall light pattern. But we won’t be able to tell what’s happening in the individual houses where the people live their lives.”
Furthermore, the fact that individual regions of our brains are responsible for a wide variety of behaviors makes neural imaging more complicated. The amygdala, which modulates our emotions, is a perfect example of this. Dr. Viskontas said that people and animals with amygdala damage often fail to recall certain memories as vividly as those with a healthy amygdala, especially negative memories.
“But the story’s so much more complicated than that,” she said. “Sure, my amygdala might light up if you show me a scary movie, but that doesn’t mean that if [it lights] up when you show me a romantic comedy, that I’m somehow showing a fear response to intimacy. This type of reverse inference-making is rampant in the media, but it’s almost never warranted.”
Receiving subtle indications about whether or not to rotate a puzzle block in a video game you can’t see is a far cry from people reading your thoughts. It’s a fascinating, maybe even landmark step in brain-to-brain communication, but our as-yet primitive instruments and understanding of the entire brain indicate how many more steps await us on that path.
Dr. Indre Viskontas contributed to this article. Dr. Viskontas is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco and Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She completed her Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles.