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Mind Control or Brain to Brain Communication?

by on 2013/09/30

The BBC News Website (revised 10th September 2013) asks the question “Are we close to making human ‘mind control’ a reality?”, meanwhile in the Guardian (28th August 2013) Dean Burnett reports a rather more measured headline that “Brain-to-brain communication is not a conversation killer”. These articles are a response to a recent, unpublished, study at the University of Washington, which can be found here (press release). In my last blog I wrote about a technique for inducing “false memories” and we’re on a similarly science fictional topic this time. As with that previous report this demonstration of direct brain-to-brain communication in humans is exciting but somewhat less shocking than some of the headlines in the press would suggest.

What the researchers did?

In this study, a standard electro-encephalograpy (EEG) system was used to monitor neural activity in the brain of the “sender” (Dr. Rajesh Rao). He wore a cap on his head, with electrodes that touched his scalp and picked up electrical signals, as shown on the left of the picture. The measurements were focused on a part of his brain associated with motor control of his right hand and, with a little training, it was possible for a computer to determine when he was visualising moving his hand. Dr. Rao watched a simple computer game involving protecting a city by shooting down missiles. When he wanted to destroy the missile he visualised moving his finger on a virtual fire button, and a computer decided if a signal should be sent over the internet to the “receiver” in a different building.

Brain to brain communication setup

Credit: University of Washington

The receiver (Dr. Andrea Stocco, on the right of the picture) sat with his finger poised over the space bar of a computer keyboard, which controlled the game to shoot down the missile threatening the city. However, he could not see the screen and had no idea when to press the “fire” button. Strapped to his head was a Trans-cranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) coil, which uses a magnetic field to induce activity in the brain. Again this was targeted at the part of the brain controlling the right hand and, when activated, causes muscles to spasm, jerking the hand up and down. The initial stages of the experiment involved Dr. Rao learning how to visualise hand movement in a way that the computer could interpret correctly. This kind of training is a common part of brain-computer interfaces using measurement of “brain-waves”. Once they could do this reliably they found that they had 100% success in generating controlled hand movement in the receiver, and to shoot down the missile in the game most of the time. The main problem is that the TMS caused the receivers hand to jerk in a way that usually meant that they hit the space bar but not every time. The stimulation provided by this technique is relatively crude as it can only cause activation of a general area of the brain near the surface.

How was this reported?

Most of the press associated with this experiment either focused on brain-to-brain communication or the suggestion that this was “mind-control”. The BBC’s headline and story was perhaps the most sensational of these, drawing parallels with Voldemort’s mind controlling curse from the Harry Potter franchise. The researchers are looking at this as being much more akin to a sharing of thoughts, which allowed the BBC website to use a picture of Mr. Spock, though not actually in the process of performing a Vulcan Mind Meld. There have been other similar experiments reported recently, such as the direct brain-to-brain link between rats, which used implanted electrodes. That’s unlikely to be demonstrated in humans any time soon, so those worried about mind control or mind reading can probably relax for now. The next step is to repeat this with more subjects but if nothing else the researchers involved have generated a lot of media interest and debate on the implications of the research.

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