At times in my marriage, I have dreamed of high tech helmets that my wife and I could wear to communicate, connecting brains, so I could truly understand what my wife thinks, reading her like in science fiction books and movies. These helmets would have been useful, for example, the time my wife became furious after finding I had eaten her donut, the last one. She was pregnant with our first child. Perhaps more than a mind reading device would be required to understand such complexity.
But, who hasn't longed to see into the mind of another person? The idea of getting into someone else's brain to perceive her thoughts appeals to our desire for communication, a primal need, evolved over millions of years.
Research findings revealed today suggest that we are moving closer to this miraculous ability. While some might question whether we really want to know the thoughts of other people, the idea sounds cool in theory. The technology lacks important mechanisms and scientific knowledge, so the machine is still a long ways off. Plenty of time remains to ponder the ethical and privacy issues at stake.
At conference proceedings in Spain, neuroscientists revealed how they located the area in the brain where individual words reside, regardless of the language spoken. A report from the New Scientist titled "Mind-reading scan locates site of meaning in the brain" discloses the findings of the neuroscientist Joao Correia of Maastricht University, who studied the brains of bilingual Dutch-English speakers, searching for the area that generates words and meanings.
Discovering this brain region is a tremendous accomplishment, and Wired Magazine suggests that it moves "us one step closer to developing multilingual mind reading machines." The study certainly breaks ground, pushing beyond a person hearing a word, already mapped by neuroscientists. This new area processes written and spoken words, thought generation.
While we now possess the map, much remains, and the step is relatively small. The researchers focused on one question: "how do we represent the meaning of words independent of the language we are listening to?" So, using a real time fMRI scanner able to report brain activity instantly, Correia found that the exact same brain area fired when a participant thought of a word in English or Dutch, providing the data needed to pinpoint the activated location of words and meanings.
The New Scientist report explains that the researchers had to develop an algorithm that could correlate a word-thought with neural firing captured in the data patterns from the fMRI. This algorithm was key in locating the brain region. As for the future, the scientists only stated that knowing where these processes take place is a move towards accessing thoughts.
However, they also suggested that there is a major setback in the interpretation of thoughts because the brain patterns of each person are unique, like a thumbprint. Even if we were able to read thoughts, the hypothetical machine would have to be programmed specifically for each person, their entire language capabilities.
While my wife and I will not be wearing the science fiction helmets of my imagination anytime soon, the discoveries by these scientists are remarkable. By degrees they are discovering how our complex brains function and what roles individual regions play. The more we know about the brain and communication, the better we understand ourselves as human beings, and these small steps forward will be seen in the future as the beginning of a scientific revolution.
By Darin L. Hammond