Reading minds to get an answer

New technologies are beginning to show up in places that people once believed as common, Sci-­Fi tropes. The infamous far-off ability of mind reading is now much closer to reality than once thought. Researchers at the University of Washington attempted a form of mind reading through a long ­distance guessing game by connecting participant pairs from a mile away and transmitting their brain signals over the Internet as a novel form of communication.

Their study was published in PLOS ONE, a peer­ reviewed, open­-access journal by the Public Library of Science, and is considered one of the first effective methods to show that one person can guess what the other is thinking.

“There are so few brain-­to-­brain studies that exist right now,” said Chantel Prat, co-­author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at UW. “What we wanted was a test in which two people could problem solve together using a binary — yes or no — signal.”

This experiment was a 20-­questions game and had five participant pairs that played 10 control games and 10 experimental games. The method was non­invasive and monitored.

According to the study, the game was played where one participant, the inquirer, would question his or her partner, the respondent, about an object the respondent saw and would be thinking about. The respondent, who is monitored by an EEG, would respond to the question by focusing on “yes” or “no” flashing LED lights.

Darby Losey, an undergraduate computer science and neurobiology student a part of ILABS at UW, and co-author of the study, said in order for the inquirer to receive these signals, the group had to create custom software that works with an existing program called BCI2000. “This [software] collects the data and determines which light the respondent was looking at, then sends a signal over the Internet to the other lab,” Losey said. “In this lab is a transcranial magnetic stimulation machine.”

The TMS machine is able to generate a small magnetic field that stimulates the brain. Both yes and no answers receive stimulation, Losey said, but the “yes” will trigger a disturbance in the visual cortex, and a “flash of light” will become visible to the inquirer, known as a phosphene. “Their two brains are sharing, albeit simple, visual information,” he said. “As TMS is encoding this information directly into the inquirer's brain, they are effectively ‘seeing with their brain.’”

Although it seems relatively straightforward, Prat said there was a lot of learning that needed to take place when it came to accurately identifying a phosphene, she said. “We found that more experienced subjects were more confident about whether or not they had ‘seen’ a phosphene.”

Participants were able to correctly guess 72 percent of the experimental games, as opposed to 18 percent of the control games. Prat said the 28 percent incorrect answers that were seen in the experimental games were most likely caused by incorrect phosphene identification. “There is some uncertainty at the levels right around the threshold for brain excitation,” Prat said. “So that's likely where some of the errors come from.”

This research stems from the university’s previous work on brain-­to-­computer interfacing, a precursor to the brain-­to-­brain interfacing seen in this study. Previous research looked into activating devices using the mind, which has also been incorporated into other research areas such as cybernetics in the prosthetics and medical device industry.

But for Prat and her colleagues, studying BBI not only has potential for new, exciting products, it also provides a better lens in which researchers can analyze the inner workings of the mind.

“[BBI] provides a way to experimentally test what are otherwise only correlational findings,” she said.

As researchers move toward complex, revolutionary technologies, it is important to remember that these studies are still in their infancy, even though it is also imperative for this research to eventually migrate into public use.

“This is still very simple brain­-to-­brain communication,” Losey said. “Ideally, one day we would be able to reach a point where BBI can communicate what language cannot.”