Wait a minute, perhaps one day you will be able to?
Here’s a headline for you…
“As scientists discover how to ‘translate’ brainwaves into words… Could a machine read your innermost thoughts?”
And the Daily Mail are not alone in reporting this news. How about this headline taken from The Telegraph and published the day before yesterday…
“Mind-reading device could become reality”
Interesting stuff isn’t it? The Telegraph’s article accompanying the above headline (excuse the pun) can be found here.
In essence, if I am correct in my understanding, both of these articles center around research being done by the University of California at Berkley through which, according to the Telegraph’s Science Correspondent Nick Collins, “researchers demonstrated that the brain breaks down words into complex patterns of electrical activity, which can be decoded and translated back into an approximate version of the original sound.” 1
It is that ‘electrical activity’, and it’s source, that interested me when reading these articles. According to what I read, research was done using 15 volunteer patients with epilepsy who were undergoing exploratory surgery to find the cause of their seizures.
A series of electrodes was connected to the patients brain via a hole in the skull and activity within the temporal lobe (a speech processing area of the brain) was then monitored whilst the patient listened to a short (5-10 minutes) conversation.
Through a process of then breaking the conversation down into the component sounds of that conversation, researches were then able to develop two computer modules that were able to match those individual component sounds with specific brain activity/signals. The process was then tested, as I understand it, by the patient then being played those component sounds and the researchers (who presumably could not hear those sounds at that point) predicting which sounds they were from the activity/signals of the patient’s brain.
It really is a fascinating piece of research and as David Derbyshire of the Mail pointed out in his article…
“It’s a staggering development that could have tremendous implications. Doctors could one day allow patients struck dumb by strokes or brain damage to communicate through the power of thought.”2
Of course he goes on to effectively point out that this same technology could also be used for evil as well as good, but then it is a newspaper article and so one has to expect and indeed it is a relevant point. But for me personally I am interested in this subject from a slightly different perspective.
Whilst both of these articles point out the benefits of this research and its findings to folk who, for one reason or another, experience difficulty communicating but what if we were to take this research and explore things in a slightly different direction? What about those folk for whom lack of communication is not the primary concern but for whom over-communication or jumbled communication is an issue?
The concept that the brain functions through individual or patterns of electrical activity is by no means new. Nor is the concept that our brain communicates the interpretation of external stimuli (for want of a less clumsy expression) such as sounds, smells, images etc, through electrical activity. But to be able to identify activity or signals in the brain that are specific to the sound constructs of individual words is very exciting indeed.
Consider, if you will, one of the ways in which we teach our children – or indeed folk who do not speak the same language as us – how to communicate. We pick something up(or point to it), show it to the child or the other person, clearly and often repetitively say its name, and invite the child (or the other person) to say the object’s name by effectively mimicking the sound we have just made. Doing this repeatedly affords the association between the sound and the object.
So theoretically, if we were able to recognize and identify our brain’s electrical patterns or signals specific to individual items, words and sounds, then we should be able to build and establish a database of these patterns or signals. If that was the case then the possibilities are countless.
In my own situation I often suffer from night terrors or nightmares, but can seldom remember them when I awake. Psychologically speaking, it is believed that these can be caused as a result of unresolved issues, and yet if I can not recall the contents of these night terrors or nightmares how can I attempt to resolve them?
One option of course is hypnosis, but how much more effective a solution would it be if instead of hypnosis the relevant electrical activity of brain was monitored and recorded and then compared with our database of patterns and signals and an accurate picture or storybook of my dreams produced and the relevant issues addressed?
And we can go even further can we not? As someone who has schizophrenia and who suffers from what are often termed as ‘auditory hallucinations’ (or paracusia) this research could have major benefits for folk like me and indeed in respect of lots of mental-health related conditions .
As I said, the potential implications are countless. But let’s not get too excited too soon.
The fact of the matter is that whilst this research is extremely exciting and does have far-reaching implications, it is still very much in its infancy when it c0mes to its development and application and indeed those implications. It is, without doubt, likely to be years before these are fully explored or before scientists and indeed technology have reached the point where it can be fully developed.
But hey, I look forward to the day when I can download an app that lets me know what I am thinking 🙂