While researching for this blog I was slightly surprised at the largely negative attitudes towards this research, such as in this forum here[3].

Just seen this very distrubing scientific study that can decode someones internal thoughts by looking at brainwaves. This is the type of discovery the elite have been waiting for and I have no doubt that soon this technology will be installed into every CCTV camera.”[3]

Therefore I would like to spend this blog drawing attention to the limitations and hurdles of mind reading, in attempt to level the playing field and hopefully this will put some people’s mind at rest.

Researchers in the past few years have attempted decode peoples thoughts using FMRI and single cell recordings. Participants are presented with a stimulus, such as a list of words, sounds[1] or video clips[2]. Brain scans are then used to see which areas are activated by each stimulus, researchers can then use this information to determine which stimulus a participant is thinking of. These findings may be useful as a means of communication for coma patients or those who are paralysed[1]. Researchers have also been working on applying this technology to control a cursor [8,7] and even a wheelchair[7] with thoughts alone.

Dr Cerf believesthat if we were to catalogue which brain areas are associated with each stimulus we could build up a database of different thoughts which could be used to read minds[4]. However think of the sheer amount of computer memory this would require! There is also the issue of whether people respond differently the same stimuli. In which case you would need to record each individuals brain response to each stimulus, which just isn’t practical. Another issue is that present studies have largely focused on concrete thoughts such as shapes or faces. But will abstract concepts be as simple? For example if I were to say think of a square, most people will imagine a picture of a square. However If I were to say think of anger you may imagine an angry face, or maybe even remember an event in your life where you or someone else was angry.

A concern raised by a few researchers is whether current technology is sufficiently advanced[4].
FMRI studies for example use blood flow as a measure of brain activity, this method has the advantage in that we are able to view multiple regions of the brain simultaneously. However researchers have said that blood flow is far too slow, in relation to the neural changes in the brain therefore makes it poor measure, especially with fast changing stimuli such as moving images[2]. FMRI is precarious, it requires participants to remain still for long periods of time as the slightest movement can affect the accuracy of the reading. Single cell recordings are an alternative method, preferred by some researchers because of its high spatial and temporal accuracy. However it requires implanting electrodes into the brain, which presents many ethical issues when experimenting with humans. Also you are only able to monitor a few specific neurons within the brain, therefore it’s difficult to study a wide array of different thoughts which engage a number of different brain areas. This makes gathering information very time consuming and expensive.

An entirely different approach to mind reading suggested by Thomas Pfister, who is creating a device which detects Microexpressions. A micro expression is a small involuntary facial movement, which can be seen during an emotionally intense moment. This method is quite interesting because it enables us to study emotions, which is something that the previous approach has somewhat ignored. Microexpressions may be useful for identifying when a person is lying, or when they are attempting to conceal an emotion. Some security officials claim to use microexpression to identify lies, or detect suspicious behaviour[5]. However these expressions last approximately 1/25th second, therefore it is very hard for even trained officials to use them with any reliability or accuracy. Pfisters device is currently able to identify lying with approximately 79% accuracy. Alike the previous approach, Pfister is limited by the capabilities of modern technology. Most modern cameras are not fast enough to capture the short lasting microexpressions. Also because these expressions are involuntary it is difficult to induce them in order to gain training/baseline data.

In conclusion, I believe that it is wise to be cautious and to think of the possible implications of such research given it’s potential power. However I feel it’s important to remain realistic and be aware that there are a great number of hurdles to overcome.

References:
[1]
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16811042
[2]
http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/09/22/brain-movies/
[3]
http://forum.davidicke.com/archive/index.php/t-199165.html
[4]
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11635625
[5]
http://www.physorg.com/news66322291.html
[6]
http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/science_blog/111123.html
[7]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etP6zCoUztk
[8]
http://iopscience.iop.org/1741-2552/8/3/036004/pdf/1741-2552_8_3_036004.pdf


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