With the creation of a robotic exoskeleton which helped a paraplegic man walk for the first time in four years, a la Avatar, and the development of technology that could ultimately make Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak a reality, scientists seem to be on a roll in terms of bringing sc-fi and fantasy concepts to life. New research from the University of Washington details how scientists were able to actually link two brains over the internet, meaning telepathy isn’t as impossible as we once thought. The experiment, according to Eurekalert, had two people play a question and answer game without using words while almost a mile away from each other.
Covered in the journal, PLOS ONE, this experiment is the first to show that two brains can in fact be connected so that one can perceive what the other is thinking.
“This is the most complex brain-to-brain experiment, I think, that’s been done to date in humans.” says Andrea Stocco, lead author and an assistant professor of psychology as well as a researcher at the University of Washington’s Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences.
The conception of this type of experiment dates back to 2013 when researchers first discovered they could establish a link between peoples’ brains in the first place. Other studies saw researchers connect the brains of rats and monkeys, and in one instance, the transmission of a brain signal from a human to a rat using electrodes directly implanted into their brains. But the significance of this study is the new non-invasive manner in which researchers transmitted the brain signals.
Though the idea of linking brains may sound very complicated, the experiment was actually rather simple. The first participant, called the respondent, wears a cap connected to an EEG machine that kept track of the electrical activity in the brain. The respondent is then shown a simple object on a computer screen, and the second participant, or the inquirer, is given a list of potential objects they can guess the first person has seen. The inquirer can send a question to the respondent, which can be answered with yes or no by looking at one of two blinking LED lights in front of them that flash at different frequencies. The answer is then sent back as a signal via the internet. The signal activates a magnetic coil behind the inquirer’s head, with only a ‘yes’ answer generating a response that stimulates the visual cortex of the inquirer. This response causes the inquirer to see a flash of light called a “phosphene”, which looks like a blob, waves, or a line in their field of view, created by briefly disrupting the visual field. Through this process, the inquirer can figure out the correct object with yes or no questions without every actually speaking to the respondent.
The experiment was conducted in dark rooms in two different labs at the University of Washington. Five different pairs of participants each played 20 rounds of the question and answer game, with 10 of those rounds serving as control games to compare results. To make sure the participants couldn’t use anything other than their brains to communicate, the researchers equipped them with earplugs so they couldn’t associate the noise emitted by the different stimulation frequencies with specific responses. The team even slightly altered the magnetic coil’s stimulation intensities throughout the games so that their ability to travel as sound waves through the skull couldn’t be used as clues in the game. The researchers also made sure to change the position of the coil behind the inquirer’s head at the start of each round. In the control games, a plastic spacer was added that blocked the magnetic field from the inquirer’s head so that they did not experience any phosphenes from the answers. Participants were never told if they had guessed the correct object nor were they aware of whether the round was a control or not.
The study concludes that this method of transmitting information was indeed successful, with the participants guessing the object correctly in 72 percent of the real games, and just 18 percent in the control games. Why some guessed the incorrect object while in the real games could be from many reasons, the most likely being that participants may have had difficulties recognizing when the phosphene had occurred, as many of the participants had never seen a phosphene before. Additionally, the respondents could have simply confused the signals before they were transmitted, which would lead to many wrong answers. The brain signal could have been interrupted by hardware issues as well, and one must keep in mind that “While the flashing lights are signals that we’re putting into the brain, those parts of the brain are doing a million other things at any given time too.” notes Chantel Prat, a staff member at UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and an associate professor of psychology.
The team received a $1 million grant for the research from the W. M. Keck foundation and came up with the games that the connected participants would play in 2014. Now, the researchers are looking into transferring brain signals from healthy brains to developmentally impaired ones, a process they call “brain tutoring”. They are also investigating the possibility of influencing a brain that has been affected by an external factor such as a stroke or injury.
The potential applications for this kind of technology is virtually endless. It could be used for simple education purposes, between teacher and student, as well as helping others with developmental disabilities regain essential mental functions. The research team is even getting close to being able to transmit entire brain states, meaning sending a signal from an awake person to a tired one and seeing if they would suddenly enter a state of alertness. This could be used to help people who are suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in focusing.
It likely won’t be any time soon that we see this technology applied on these larger scales, but the implications that this research holds is phenomenal. Not only in terms of medicine and cognitive therapy, but even in the basic way that we communicate. We already log into the internet to send messages and videos every day, now imagine being able to have that same range of connectivity without ever needing to come up with username and password.