The telegraph. The telephone. The Internet. All innovations in communication that have changed the world.
But the silent exchange of information using brain-to-brain communication? Surely the power to read minds remains the stuff of science fiction.
Perhaps not. A team of researchers from the University of Washington now contends that it’s possible to link up the brains of two separate individuals, in two separate spaces, so that one person can figure out what the other is thinking.
How? By digitizing the electrical nerve activity tied to a person’s thoughts, translating that activity/thought into a specific signal, and transmitting that signal over the Internet in patterns that can be understood by another person’s brain.
All without a spoken word.
“Brain-to-brain interface is a field of research that is just at the very beginning,” said study author Andrea Stocco, an assistant professor of psychology with the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences in Seattle. “The ability to easily and directly communicate very complicated concepts and images from one brain to another brain is a long way off in the future.
“But what we have been able to show is that the clear exchange of simple information between a pairing of brains is possible,” he added. “And that, I think, is a big step forward. And it establishes a very solid foundation to build on. Which is very exciting.”
Stocco and his colleagues share the details of their brain communication experiments in the Sept. 23 issue of PLOS ONE.
At its core, brain interfacing refers to the ability of two brains to “speak” to one another directly, by sending and receiving neural messages in the form of electrical signals. Those signals can then be picked up by brain wave-reading technology — such as an electroencephalogram (EEG) — and transmitted via the Internet.
In earlier work, the team had enabled the brain signals of one individual to prompt hand movement in another individual located in a separate space.
Building on that, the latest investigation involved 10 men and women, between the ages of 19 and 39, who were randomly paired and then sent to two different, darkened lab locations roughly 1 mile apart.
Although neither participant could actually see or hear one another, each was hooked up to a EEG-type machine.
Then each engaged in a question-and-answer game, in which one person thought of an object (such as “dog”) drawn from a specific category (such as “animals”), while the other sent online questions to try to guess what the object was.
The object-thinker, however, could only respond by paying attention to a “yes” or “no” flashing light, with each answer generating slightly different types of neural activity.
“Yes” or “no” answers were, in turn, digitized and sent back into the visual cortex of the questioner’s brain via the EEG pathway. Once received, “yes” signals triggered perceptions of a quick flash of light, while “no” answers did not. Questioners were then asked to interpret the answers, after having been informed that a flash of light meant “yes.”
After 20 rounds, “we found that people were really good at playing the game,” said Stocco. “On average, people were able to correctly identify the objects more than 70 percent of the time. And because each game involved a series of questions and answers before guessing the object, we found that people were actually able to correctly understand responses 93 percent of the time.”
Stocco said that the hope is to eventually facilitate true two-way communication, while cutting out the “middle man” by eliminating the need for Web-based communication entirely.
“The goal is to get to communicating only thoughts from one brain to the other and back, and to do so with complex concepts,” Stocco said. “What we’ve achieved is already very cool. But what this has the potential to lead to is a whole new form of communication.”
There’s more on the brain interfacing at the ALS Association.