Mind-Reading and Manipulation

So, as it has been some time since my last post (I have a really good excuse, trust me), I know you’ve had plenty of time to think about the possible negative ramifications of developing the technology to read someone’s mind. We can start with the obvious: it’s a plain and simple invasion of privacy. I remember hearing about the Patriot Act sometime after its implementation in 2001, and thinking, I’m so glad that we will always have one true privacy that cannot be invaded by the government, etc.: our thoughts. To my adolescent self, the technology to read minds seemed completely impossible. I knew very little about neuroscience back then. I didn’t know that our brain waves comprise a code just waiting to be cracked. Now I’m sure it’s merely a matter of time.

(Side note: I just Wikied the Patriot Act and realized that the USA in “USA PATRIOT Act” doesn’t stand for “United States of America.” It stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America.” For some reason, that is hilarious to me. Why use the acronym for the name of a country in the title of an Act of Congress to stand for anything other than the name of that country? Why??)

Of course, while I now believe it’s entirely within the realm of possibility, I also think it will be a long time before a person’s thoughts can be read. The business of brain wave decryption isn’t exactly analogous to deciphering an ancient language. In the brain, it matters how many neurons are firing in what region, with what frequency, and so forth. And the number of neurons in the adult human brain is estimated using tomography to be about 90 billion–so just imagine the complexity! These networks are different for every person, and moreover, they’re constantly changing within each person. Neurons are gaining and losing synapses (connections with other neurons); they are dying and being replaced. As we learn, which we do every waking moment, our brains are altered.

Graphical Abstract--Neural portraits of perception: Reconstructing face images from evoked brain activity

Graphical Abstract–Neural portraits of perception: Reconstructing face images from evoked brain activity

When you think about that, it’s actually really impressive how far we’ve gotten. Remember that Yale paper you were supposed to read? In this study, researchers were able to reconstruct impressively accurate facial images from the brain waves of subjects looking at photographs. The really crazy thing about their study in particular is that they didn’t factor in activity from the occipital cortex, the visual processing center of the brain. The authors write, “Visual stimuli based on patterns of activity outside occipital cortex have not, to our knowledge, been reported. The potential for reconstructions from higher-level regions (e.g., ventral temporal cortex or even fronto-parietal cortex) is enticing because reconstructions from these regions may be more closely related to perceptual experience as opposed to visual analysis.” How did they do it? The most basic explanation is that they used a learning algorithm to match brain waves for each participant to various features of a “training” facial image. Thus, with a decoding algorithm primed for each subject, researchers knew what brain activity would give information about certain features in the “test” photographs. They did reconstructions with several sets of neural activity, including ones that excluded input from the visual processing center of the brain!!! Above you can see their graphical abstract. The reconstructed image represented therein is one that integrated activity from all regions of the brain, but please see their paper for the reconstructions that exclude the occipital cortex!

A neuroscience lab at UC, Berkeley is working in a similar vein–these scientists want to be able to interpret the brain’s activity in response to a moving picture, rather than a still picture. I presume that the end goal of all this would be to enable blind persons to see again–perhaps a helmet could be devised which would live stream the view that a person would normally see with his eyes and translate it into electrical stimulations at exactly the right place in the person’s brain to allow him to see the world around him. Of course, we’re still learning to map the brain activity to certain visual stimuli, and cannot even begin to try and evoke the proper visual interpretation in the brain until we have the mapping part down. But Berkeley’s Professor Jack Gallant has made some progress, using similar methods as the Yale researchers above, adapted for dynamic images. Here you can see some clips from movie trailers that Gallant and his team reconstructed from test subjects’ brains, but I’ll warn you: they’re not that impressive yet. There’s a big difference between reconstructing static facial images and reconstructing random movie clips in real time.

Now, this is something of a tangent, but if we’re discussing mind reading and its possible evils, we have to touch on mind control. So, remember that scene in Avatar where Jake and Neytiri use their little built-in Ethernet cords to plug their minds into each other? …Yes, you do. Well, in some sense, that is now a reality. Researchers at the University of Washington have enabled a person to control the hand movements of another person located in a completely different building about a half mile away. No, really! The first participant sits in front of a computer game and must defend a city by blocking enemy fire and retaliating with cannons. The catch is, he has no physical controls. Instead of pushing buttons or clicking a mouse, this player must defend the city by thinking about moving his hand to push buttons. An encephalography machine reads this intention from his brain and transmits the motor control command via electrical pulses through the Internet and then through electrodes hooked up to a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil placed over the region of the receiving player’s brain that executes hand movements. (Man, that’s a mouthful.) Within a fraction of a second, the second person’s brain is stimulated and his hands taps a touch screen game control. He cannot see the game and does not know when to fire the cannon or block incoming fire, yet accuracy during these trials is as high as 83%.

This amazes and terrifies me. And guess what? The UW researchers have recently been given a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to try and expand the types of information that can be shared from brain to brain. Apparently, they’d like to enable transmission of visual and psychological concepts and thoughts. I can see the interest from a basic science perspective, but in a practical sense, do we want that technology to exist?

The one thing the UW researchers are looking into that has a clear positive objective is learning how to influence neural activity involved with alertness and sleepiness. With such knowledge, they hope that signals from a dozing e.g. airplane pilot’s brain could activate an electrical stimulation to wake him so he doesn’t…crash the plane, I guess. Which, I’ve just learned, actually happens sometimes.

What other helpful/scary things are neuroscientists cooking up nowadays? Memory erasure. Researchers from Shanghai Institute of Brain Functional Genomics and East China Normal University in Shanghai have achieved erasure of fear memories in mice. This is like, Forgetfulness Charm from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets level stuff. You can see why such a thing might possibly be an attractive option for patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but jeez. The whole Neuron article abstract is terrifying. “We find that transient alphaCaMKII overexpression at the time of recall impairs the retrieval of both newly formed one-hour object recognition memory and fear memories, as well as 1-month-old fear memories. Systematic analyses suggest that excessive alphaCaMKII activity-induced recall deficits are not caused by disrupting the retrieval access to the stored information but are, rather, due to the active erasure of the stored memories. Further experiments show that the recall-induced erasure of fear memories is highly restricted to the memory being retrieved while leaving other memories intact. Therefore, our study reveals a molecular genetic paradigm through which a given memory, such as new or old fear memory, can be rapidly and specifically erased in a controlled and inducible manner in the brain.” And this was published back in 2008. The ability to erase fear memories is already six years old.

Okay, there’s one more thing I have to mention, and maybe you’ve already thought of it. What will mind reading do to the criminal justice system? Lie detectors would be obsolete. There would be fewer trials, because a suspect’s innocence could be determined by a simple fMRI test. On the one hand, perhaps no more will innocent people be wrongly accused. On the other hand, how will we know when the technology is accurate/reliable enough to entrust with a person’s life? And of course, if we want to get really dramatic: the glory of dying with testimony will be a thing of the past.

Perhaps you can guess what I’ll say next: the technology does already exist, though it is imperfect, and though it is definitely unconstitutional to involuntarily impose. In a brief article on this subject, Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst of the ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, wrote the following: “Unlike the polygraph, which measures heart rate and temperature in an attempt to detect a subject’s response to lying, fMRI lie detection attempts to detect a subject’s decision to lie. And for a polygraph to work you have to get a subject to actively participate by answering questions, while fMRI could be used to extract information from a person whether they actively provide an answer to a question or not.” The ACLU views techniques for peering inside the human mind as a “violation of the 4th and 5th Amendments, as well as a fundamental affront to human dignity.” And I think it would be hard to find someone who disagrees. I mean, we are our minds. This is seen clearly in some victims of severe brain trauma, who are not the same person afterwards (there are endless examples of this, but here’s one I just happened to come across). So to manipulate a mind is to manipulate an identity, and to invade another’s thoughts is to undress a soul.

But rest easy, for now. An article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, “Prospects of functional magnetic resonance imaging as lie detector,” attempts to tackle this ethical issue: “We argue that the current status of fMRI studies on lie detection meets neither basic legal nor scientific standards…and provide an overview on the stages and operations involved in fMRI studies, as well as the difficulties of translating these laboratory protocols into a practical criminal justice environment. It is our overall conclusion that fMRI is unlikely to constitute a viable lie detector for criminal courts.”

In conclusion, I think that there are several honorable applications of mind reading capabilities. As mentioned before, there are many ways in which all the technologies listed here and in my previous post can give injured persons their lives back. Sure, I dread to think of this technology falling into the wrong hands. I don’t want my mind invaded any more than the next guy; however, I cannot imagine the pain of losing the ability to speak, or perhaps worse–seeing a loved one lose that ability. In such a situation, I would give anything to be able to talk with him or her again. To be locked outside of a precious other’s mind, or locked inside oneself, seems like the cruelest fate imaginable.

…There’s also the thought that maybe one day we can learn to read animals’ thoughts and better communicate with them. Could be cool.

My main goal in writing on this topic is not to get you to pick a side, but to get you thinking about it, because it concerns all of us guys with that piece of anatomy called a brain. Thanks for reading, and please share your thoughts in the comments below!