Scientists Can Eavesdrop On Your Thoughts

Big Brother has nothing on these guys: A team at Stanford has developed a way of reading patients' minds.

A team at the Stanford University School of Medicine has discovered a way of eavesdropping on brain activity, a method that could lead to new brain-reading devices.

The researchers observed that the brain operates the same when a research subject performs arithmetic under an experimenter’s supervision as it does when the subject uses numbers in daily life—even just considering something as simple as how many eggs to pick up at the store, or noticing that one subway car is more packed than another. That might sound pretty obvious, but until now, scientists had no clear-cut evidence that brain activity observed while subjects perform mathematical exercises in a highly controlled experimental setting mimicked brain activity in a natural setting; researchers simply had to infer that lab findings had a parallel in the real world. Now they have evidence, and that opens up big possibilities:

The finding could lead to ‘mind-reading’ applications that, for example, would allow a patient who is rendered mute by a stroke to communicate via passive thinking. Conceivably, it could also lead to more dystopian outcomes: chip implants that spy on or even control people’s thoughts.

In a sense, this science is similar to the kind of predictive work that tech like Google Now endeavors to do. But the researchers' method required more gore than just opening an app: doctors removed part of the skulls of three volunteer patients, and implanted electrodes directly onto the brain. (The press release compares the devices to wiretaps worn by spies.) While hooked up to the devices, the patients were filmed going about their daily business: eating, drinking, chatting with friends, and so on. They were also asked to perform mathematical exercises (example: "is it true or false that 2+4=5?"). When they performed those exercises, electrical activity in part of the intraparietal sulcus (the area responsible for attention and eye and hand motions) was activated. Researchers then compared that data against electrical activity recorded during the rest of the patients' stay, and found activity in the same region when patients read numbers or even just thought about them in their everyday tasks.

Eventually, the research could inform new methods for altering brain activity. Says Henry Greely, steering committee chair of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics: “It demonstrates, first, that we can see when someone’s dealing with numbers and, second, that we may conceivably someday be able to manipulate the brain to affect how someone deals with numbers."

But conspiracy theorists need not worry just yet: that aforementioned chip implant won't hit the market any time soon. The study was small and its results were premature. As Dr. Josef Parvizi, senior author of the study, says: “We’re still in early days with this. If this is a baseball game, we’re not even in the first inning. We just got a ticket to enter the stadium.”

Read the whole report here.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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1 Comments

  • Tom McDonald

    This kind of technology will be limited to identifying only very general patterns that indicate a general subject area of a brain state -- e.g., 'based on prior observations and subject confirmations one could guess with high probability that this brain now is engaged in (a) calculating numbers, rather than (b) recalling an emotionally charged incident'. This alone is significant and could lead to 'Minority Report' type applications, however, it will not be possible to identify the exact, specific content of thoughts of an individual -- e.g., 'this woman's brain pattern indicates she is now doing number calculations (rather than anticipating eating lunch) but is she now doing the numbers to hide the $50K embezzled from GegenTech Inc last month? That one can only guess at by examing other circumstantial evidence in this woman's life besides these general brain patterns.'