More Mind Reading

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by: Roger Dooley

Berkeley neuroscientists report that they have been able to identify images subjects looked at solely by analyzing fMRI scans of the subjects’ brains. Jack Gallant and his team at the University of California Berkeley published their findings in Nature.


For the first step, they calibrated their experiment by having two members of the team look at 1,750 photographs while being scanned by fMRI. “The content of the photographs included animals, buildings, food, humans, indoor scenes, man-made objects, outdoor scenes, and textures,” they wrote.

For the second stage, the two researchers looked at 120 new images while the fMRI machine was on. The research team then tried to figure out which photograph each one had been looking at. They got the right answer 92 percent of the time for one researcher and 72 percent of the time for the second. [From Reuters – Test shows possibility to see what others do.]

In January, we reported on somewhat similar work at Carnegie-Mellon University in CMU Computers Read Thoughts. The CMU work involved fewer images but used scans from some subjects to determine what images new subjects were viewing.

All of this work is exciting, although it’s far from being useful in neuromarketing or other applications. The enthusiasm at Berkeley is high:

Such a device would make it possible to decode brain signals and track attention. It may even be possible to “see” someone else’s dream, the team at the University of California Berkeley said.

“Our results suggest that it may soon be possible to reconstruct a picture of a person’s visual experience from measurements of brain activity alone,” Jack Gallant and colleagues wrote in their report…

It’s no surprise that the neuroalarmists are out in full force. Kudos to Aftermath News for Brainreading device sparks fears of Orwellian Minority Report dystopia – using “Orwellian” in the second or third paragraph is all too common, but putting it in the headline deserves special mention. Amar Shah continued the Minority Report theme in In The Mind’s Eye. The Movement wrote the ominous sounding, The Last Bastion of Privacy Is Breached: A Machine Can Look Into Your Mind.

Not all of the predictions are dire. Blatant Reality suggests that, “Pretty soon people are going to think MRI stands for ‘Mind Reading Interface’ and not ‘Magnetic Resonance Imaging.'”

It’s a bit premature to worry about scientists peering into your inner thoughts, according to John-Dylan Haynes, a professor at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

Haynes says the method is limited to deciphering information that can be mapped out in space, such as sensory inputs (where a sound is coming from) or motor function (what action one’s arm has performed). The challenge, he says, is that it cannot “be easily applied to cases where you don’t have a clear mathematical model,” such as memories, intentions and emotions. “High-level thoughts would be a bit tricky to get a hold of without such a mathematical model,” he adds. [From Scientific AmericanDo You See What I See? Translating Images out of Brain Waves by Nikhil Swaminathan.]

So, as the SciAm article suggests, you can keep your tinfoil hat in the closet for now.

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