Science fiction stories are full of plot lines that involve brain communication, mind-reading and other mental abilities. Some super heroes have the power to read other’s thoughts, and of course, the famous Dr. Spock, from Star Trek was known for his Vulcan “mind melds” where he could be inside the head and thoughts of another. But that’s just fiction, it can’t be real right?
Actually it might be, and new research from the University of Washington shows quite a bit of promise in the area of direct brain-to-brain communication. The study detailed a game played by two participants who cannot see each other, cannot hear each other but could still accurately guess what the other was thinking.
Researchers at UW wired up a study participant with a cap connected to an EEG machine to record electrical activity in the brain. That person is the respondent and he or she is shown a picture of an object. A second person, the inquirer, is out of sight of the first person and asks simple yes or no questions about the object via the computer. At no time does either participant see or hear the other. The answers are not given verbally or via the computer, but by having the respondent focus on one of two lights, one for yes and one for no, each answer having its own specific sequence.
While the inquirer can see whichever response is given, and both responses will activate a magnetic coil directly behind his or her head, the yes response is slightly stronger. This increase is enough to stimulate the inquirers visual cortex, allowing them to see a small orb or flash of light called a “phosphene.” Using the yes and no answers, the inquirer attempts to guess the object the respondent is shown.
Andrea Stucco who is an assistant professor of psychology at UW, authored the study and said in a press release
, “This is the most complex brain-to-brain experiment, I think, that’s been done to date in humans. It uses conscious experiences through signals that are experienced visually, and it requires two people to collaborate.”
The team made sure they controlled for other factors such as sound and the vibration picked up by skull bones. Participants wore ear plugs and the sequences and frequencies of the yes and no responses were varied so there could be no way for the participants to learn patterns which could provide clues to the answers. Each participant was in a dark room, and almost a mile away from their game partner. Five pairs of participants played 20 rounds of the question and answer game in a random mixture of 10 real games and 10 control games. In the control games, the magnetic coil on the inquirers head was altered so that no phosphene could be produced. This alteration was not detectable by any participant.
In the real games, when the participants were wired up together, the correct object was guessed in 72% of the attempts, compared to only 18 percent in the control games.The study grew out of earlier UW research that successfully linked two human brains together. In that research
one participant was able to send signals from their brain to another particpant’s brain that would control the hand motions of the second person
The most recent research was made possible by a grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation in the amount of $1 million which allowed the team to broaden the focus of their experiments.
The researchers hope that these results can be used to develop technology that could allow transmitting of brain states from one person to another, ie a focused brain being abe to stimulate an unfocused one, or a person who is fully awake being about to rouse a sleepy counterpart.
Check out the video to see more about this new discovery.