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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.


Comment 1:

I’m experiencing issues with my comments again, it says they’re awaiting moderation. Apologies for any inconvenience, I’ve included the remaining three comments below:

Comment 2: – Awaiting moderation


This is a topic area I am personally very interested in. The key concern in this debate ultimately centres around the matter of harm, whether it be to the participants or the public. However harm is extremely complex area and ultimately saying something is or isn’t harmful is difficult. One of things that I’ve noticed about the chart is that is it specifically says “physical harm” which I can understand.. Psychological harm can be a somewhat awkward area to define.

There is definitely a clear difference between physical and psychological harm in theoretical sense, however there are a lot of situations where the line is certainly blurred. For example drinking lowers inhibitions which has been linked to increased likelihood of unprotected sex and spread off STI’s [1]. Which of the two would you definitively put that under? Lowered inhibitions is clearly psychological yet the outcome it has is physical. Harm as a whole can be very difficult to effectively sum up especially with psychedelic drugs such as LSD, which in terms of it’s physical harm are generally very low e.g. risk of overdose is extremely low given that the lethal is 400 times that of the threshold dose. However the effect LSD has on the mind depends on the individual, and on the environment the drug is taken in. If taken by a person free of mental illness in an environment in which they are safe and feel safe, then risk should be absolutely minimal. However it can in some individuals can trigger dormant psychotic conditions, or cause a delirium in extremely high doses in which an individual may be more likely to engage in dangerous behaviours. In short, the danger of many drugs depends on how and where they are used.

One final problem is that when assessing the harm of illegal drugs we are often relying on statistics for overdoses and hospital reports, rather than lab settings. Illegal drugs are impure therefore, how do we know whether ecstasy deaths are actually caused by MDMA and not by the various cutting agents in the pills? Recently purity levels of Ecstasy tablets have been as low as 24.7% [2]. Conversely many users rely on lab experiments to judge the safety of their illicit drug use, which isn’t likely to be representative given the above information.

In sum, effectively judging harm and thus reducing harm is very difficult in the world of drugs especially illicit drugs. This because the exact nature of harm can depend on the situation, and the statistics we used to make these decisions are often inaccurate.


[1]Rehm 2012 –

Comment 3: – Awaiting moderation:

Well it seems from the comments here, that the promise of a higher income is a key reason why many of us attend University. Recent figures for this year
seem to suggest that despite increasing rates of unemployment, graduates continue to on average earn more than non-graduates[1] The average wage for a graduate is £15.18 compared with £8.92 of non graduates. However are these figure applicable to you and I? There is fair amount of variance in the data, medicine graduates earning £21.29 an hour, and Arts graduates earning 12.06 an hour. So really our wage depends on which subject we choose to study. Research seems to suggest personal factors also play a key role,that men benefit less than females from a degree[2]. Meta-analysis seem to show that youth and education were equally significant as predictors of salary[3] therefore will mature student benefit that greatly from a degree? Lastly it’s important to keep in mind that these figures are largely correlation therefore we cannot be entirely sure it is the degree itself that is causing the increase in wage. Or is it merely that people who attend university share attributes such as above average intelligence that have been linked to increased earnings?[4] The answer to these questions, I sadly do not know, however considering that many of us consider wage a driving factor, it is certainly worth considering whether these estimated figures are personally applicable and ultimately whether our degrees will benefits our wage in the long run?



Comment 4: – awaiting moderation


Really nice blog, and from the comments I see this is certainly a topic people care about.

I think kfh1991 raised a really interesting point regarding generalisability, which is something we often ignore in Animal research debates. Generally I find people tend to focus on the potential harm to animals, however if results aren’t generalisable then the are being put animals through unnecessary stress/harm. Due to vast nature of Psychology, the matter of generalisability is especially tricky. When researching language and higher cognitive functions like logic, animals aren’t particularly useful because the differences between humans and animals are often too great. However in more biological research, animals can be helpful. Rats for example share an average of 85% genetic similarity with humans and some primates share more than 90%. Areas such as the visual system in humans are relatively similar to those of monkeys and as result animal research has been hugely beneficial e.g. Hubel & Wiesel won the nobel prize in 1981. Animal research can even aid us in understanding behaviour, because many of the fundamental behavioural laws such as avoiding painful stimuli are universal. Findings by Skinner, have even been used to develop token economies to reduce problem behaviours in prisons(Hobbs & Holt 1976; Ayllon & Millan, 1979). As you can see, animal research can certainly be generalisable in certain areas of psychology and thus very helpful. However I would like to make it clear that just because animal research can be generalisable, doesn’t mean that It can ever be an excuse for unnecessary harm, as the welfare of the animals should always be the priority.


Hobbs & Holt 1976 –

Ayllon & Millan, 1979

Music is a particularly interesting area for science because it spans a number of different scientific doctrines including: Neuroscience, cognitive, and evolutionary psychology to name a few. FMRI studies have shown that music engages many fundamental areas of the brain[1] and encompasses a vast array of cognitive functions. While researching for blog I found two areas in which music research is being used that I found particularly surprising and intriguing. In this blog I will focus on how the scientific study of music is aiding our understanding of human ancestry and potentially providing an animal model for language research.

Brain scanning studies in the past decade have investigated an emotion phenomenon known as “Chills”. Chills can be described as an intense emotional response typified by shivers and tingling of the spine. PET and FMRI studies have shown that music which induces “chills” results in the stimulation of brain areas involved in the reward system [2,3]. This is particularly interesting because such stimulation is generally the associated with biologically beneficial behaviours such as eating and procreation. What can such research potentially tell us about early humans? Dr Pinker of Harvard University suggests that music is merely a bi-product; that human’s ability to extract meaning from sounds around them has been important for survival. As a result we have created sounds that stimulate our sensitive hearing for the sake of pleasure [4]. However evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller suggests that music may in fact have a functional purpose in attraction and procreation. Miller believes that musical performance is a display of healthy functioning; to singfor example you must co-ordinate cognitive, motor and auditory functions. Evidence for his claims comes from retrospective studies of Jazz musicians, Miller has shown that their musical productivity was highest during years humans are typically most virile. This may explain why people tend to be particularly attracted to music in their teens. [4] This hypothesis also fits with our understanding of music in the animal kingdom, as it primary function is for attracting the opposite sex e.g. mating calls. However the exact role of music in human evolution is still very speculative, although most will agree that music has been important to humans for a long time given archaeological evidence. [5]

In order to understand the musical sounds around us we must correctly interpret them using our knowledge of these sounds, in this sense music is similar to language. Music like language has it’s own grammatical rules, which dictate which notes go together and which do not. The easiest way to demonstrate this is with some sound examples; Take this first example of notes which do go together, compared it to this second example where the notes clash.Amazingly most of us have internalised these rules despite never receiving formal training. Researcher Aniruddh Patel suggests that language has been a particularly challenging for neuroscience, because it lacks an animal model. By this Patel means that there are no non-human animals with an equivalent language systems that we can study to better understand human language. Patel argues that music however may enable researchers to bridge this gap, as both music and language utilise many of the same cortical areas [6].This is reflected in the fact that individuals with language comprehension difficulties will show difficulties with music comprehension [7]. Patel is beginning to make some of these links by investigating the relationship between synchronisation to musical beat in birds and learning of vocal language. Research is currently showing us that a link exists, which is helping us understand the role of midbrain in vocalisation in humans [8]

This shared system of language and music has not only been beneficial in a theoretical sense but also a practical sense in development of therapies. Pam Heaton at the University of London believes that music could help those with autism better understand emotion and social cues [9] Here is an excerpt taken from Rubin Walsh a young man with autism, who claims music has aided his understanding of emotions;

“The Structure is all very ordered, and that makes the emotions in it much more accessible, than they are when you encounter them with real people on a day to day basis. So it develops your ability to understand emotions and also enables you to enjoy them in a much more relaxed way”[9]

In conclusion, the processing of musical sounds is a complex and rich area to study, which engages a wide range of doctrines from Cognitive Neuroscience to evolutionary psychology.
It can give us insight into humans evolutionary history, potentially provide an animal model for scientific study of language and even used to develop therapies for autistic spectrum disorder.


[1] Koelsch et al (2005) /papers/Koelsch_adults+children_pr.pdf
[2] Blood & Zatorre (2001)
[3]Menon & Levitin (2005)

[6] Brown, Martinez, Parsons (2006).;jsessionid=D2969E875B202AF78E22FDFE9BEAC958.d02t02
[7] Patel, Iversen & Hagoort (2004) ICMPC8.pdf
[8] Patel, Iversen, Bregmen & Schulz (2009) Bregman_Schulz_2009_NYAS.pdf




Hey Paul, I’ve been unable to post my final comment, I keep receiving the following error message:
“Duplicate comment detected; it looks as though you’ve already said that!”.


Below I’ve included a link to the blog I tried to comment on as well as my comment. Hopefully this shouldn’t be a problem and can be marked as though it were a normal comment. However if this a problem, I would appreciate it if you could let me know by leaving a comment on this post. In the mean time I’ll have a look online to see if there are any solutions to this problem so that it won’t again. Sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused.


Final Comment:


Hey there!

Overall I liked your blog. Short, sweet and straight to the point. 


The only point of disagreement I have, is your claim that ethics have created many restrictions over the years. You haven’t really provided any evidence for this, other than your claim that Milgram’s study would not have gained ethical approval by today’s standards. This relatively weak evidence considering replications have in fact been done, and one replication in 2007 successfully gained ethical approval[link below]. Considering that analyses have shown that 50-75% of published reports used deception(Adair, Duschenko & Lindsay,1985), I don’t really see how someone can suggest that ethics restrict research.

It also worth mentioning that just because a study doesn’t gain ethical approval, does not mean that the study wasn’t conducted. An example of this is Sheridan & King’s obedience study, in which they gave real electric shocks to a puppy. Despite not being officially published in a journal, the study has been cited at least 43 times in published studies and is relatively well known. This certainly raises the question of whether ethics boards actually have that much control over research practices?

All in all really nice blog.


Sheridan & King –
Milgram Replication –

As we have poetic license this semester, I’ve decided to write about some research, which I’m personally very interested in. This week I’ll be exploring a scientific explanation of spiritual and mystical experiences.

The documented use of hallucinogenic plants such as Peyote and Banisteriopsis Caapi for spiritual purposes dates back many millennia, by civilisations in Europe, South America and early America [1,2,3]. Despite the extensive use throughout human history, scientific investigation of this area wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century. 

The first steps made by scientists were to isolate the active chemicals in these plants to ascertain how they induced spiritual or mystical experiences. It was during this time that scientist Albert Hoffman discovered LSD; which caused an eruption of research interest in the fields of Psychology and Psychiatry. It was believed that these hallucinatory chemicals could aid researchers in further understanding psychotic disorders such as Schizophrenia. However some researchers believed that they may serve as useful tool in investigation of spiritual states considering their history of use.

In 1962, Harvard University oversaw the first psychedelic experiment to test whether a spiritual experience could be chemically induced; this has since been labelled the Good Friday Experiment [4]. Ten theology students were given a dose of psilocybin (active ingredient in magic mushrooms) in the chapel at Boston University. The remaining ten participants were given Vitamin B3 and served as a control. Nine of the ten participants given psilocybin reported some kind of religious experience. Experiences varied from vague feelings of a holy presence to intense mystical visions and revelations. Here is an excerpt from Randall Laakko, a participant in the experiment:

“Yeah it did change my life, the experience that day demonstrated to me, the reality of god’s presence in all the world and in all experience” [5]

There are obvious criticisms which I’m sure you’ve picked up on; firstly the sample size is very small, and entirely comprised of theology students [study of religion]. Such individuals may more inclined to religious thought, thus inclined to religious experiences. Lastly, it fails to explain natural spiritual experiences that occur without the use of drugs. Despite these drawbacks, this research was undeniably revolutionary in show that spiritual experiences can be deliberately induced in the lab.

Sadly in 1970 research ground to a standstill, when LSD the chemical that had given rise to such research was criminalized. This made access to hallucinogens increasing difficult and as a result severely curtailed research in this field for close to 20-years [6]. However in 1990 researcher Rick Strassman reopened the field with a series of studies on the chemical DMT. Strassman’s studies spanned from 1990-1995, using a total of 60 participants whom completed a total of 400 trails[7]. Strassman’s results very much reflected those of the Good Friday Experiment, with participants reporting profound spiritual experiences. Strassman not only helped in enriching the existing data with a larger sample size and extended testing, but also providing a possible answer for how natural spiritual experiences occur.

Unlike Psilocybin, DMT is endogenous (produced by the human body)[8]. This a huge step in showing that a chemical produced within the body, can induce spiritual experiences when given in the lab. However whether endogenous DMT is produced in amounts sufficient to induce a spiritual experience is still unconfirmed. There is still also the matter of whether experiences in the lab are the same as those experienced naturally. So far we are merely comparing the subjective reports from participants in lab and reports of natural spiritual experiences. Though there are striking similarities, we cannot be sure until we study natural spiritual states in lab. As I’m sure you can imagine, attempting study natural spiritual states is extremely difficult due to their unpredictability and rarity. As said by Professor Roland Griffiths, a leader figure in modern psychedelic research:

You can’t just say, ‘Well, come into the laboratory and pray for two hours, and then we’re going to image your brain because we know you’ll have a mystical experience then! We’re talking about rates of experience that may occur once in a lifetime or once every year or two” [9]

Lastly it’s very difficult to obtain a representative sample, because spiritual research largely seems to interest niche groups of people. Participants in such research are often users of psychedelic drugs, for either recreational or spiritual purposes. In Strassman’s study, those with experience with psychedelic drugs participants over those with no experience. This is due to the intensity of the DMT experience; researchers felt that inexperienced individuals may be unable to cope and as result experience negative after-effects.

In conclusion, research currently indicates that psychedelics can induce spiritual experiences,

However there is still the matter of whether this is a useful way of understanding natural spiritual states. Though in time research may offer some answers, for now it is still in its infancy and working its way back after 20-year hiatus. However given that since the reopening the area that has been a growing interest [10,11] it would seem likely that if this growth continues, that progress will ultimately be made. The conclusion it will lead us towards however, are still largely unknown.


1. Drug Identification Bible. 2007 Edition. ISBN 0-9635626-9-X.
Suárez, Jorge A. (1983). The Mesoamerican Indian Languages. ISBN 0521228344. OCLC 8034800.
3. Thomas,T.(1997) Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries ISBN 0913510726.

4. Pahnke,W., N. (1963) Drugs and Mysticism: An Analysis of the Relationship between Psychedelic Drugs and the Mystical Consciousness.
5. Randall Laakko recalls experience as a participant in the Good Friday Experiment
6. Strassman(1991)Human hallucinogenic drug research in the United States: A present-day case history and review of the process. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol 23(1)
7. Strassman, Rick,J. (2001).DMT: The Spirit Molecule. A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences.
11. Good Friday Replication –