While many people often wish they could hear what people around them are thinking, telepathic skills are often written off as science fiction. But one day, the ability to read people’s minds may not be a talent only reserved to psychics and X-Men.
A group of neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, reported they may have come up with a scientific way to read people’s minds.
Led by post-doctoral researcher Brian Pasley, the scientists have developed a method for deciphering the electrical signals in a person’s brain as they listen to words or conversation. Upon figuring out these signals, they were then able to use them to recreate the imagined speech of the same person.
The secret to their method lies in the temporal lobe of the brain, which is used in auditory perception. When a person hears a word or phrase being spoken, the activity that occurs in the temporal lobe also occurs when the person imagines that same word or phrase.
“This is a fundamental principle of the brain,” Robert Knight, a senior author for the study and a neuroscientist at UC Berkley, told FoxNews.com. “The area that performs a cognitive or behavioral function is also activated when you imagine that function. For example, let’s say you raise your right arm. Then if you imagine raising your right arm, the same areas that were active when you move your arm are working when you imagine it.”
In order to gather their findings, the researchers asked epilepsy patients undergoing brain surgery if they’d like to participate in research while they were in the hospital. Before these patients had their surgeries, they had to come to the hospital, have up to 256 electrodes placed over the surface of their brain, and then wait for a seizure to occur so the doctors could pin point the location of the seizure.
Sometimes this process takes a couple hours, but sometimes it can take weeks. So Pasley and his team utilized 15 neurosurgical patients’ extra time in the hospital while they were connected to the electrodes, having them hear 5 – 10 conversations.
Pasley then developed a way to reconstruct words using data from a person’s brain activity. Or in other words-reconstructing the words that people were thinking.
“He developed mathematical ways to match the electrical recordings from the electrodes in the brain to the sound characteristics that the patient heard,” Knight said. “The algorithms he developed can now predict a word the patient’s never heard before.”
While the researchers have barely scratched the surface of this new technique, they hope they have set the gears in motion for engineers to develop better communication aides for those who have been severely disabled, either from stroke or other illnesses.
“If you had a device that was safely implantable and actually helped the patient, there’s no doubt it would be used,” Knight said. “It could be used for someone with a speech problem, such as a severe muscular control problem like ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Or maybe someone who has a damage in the part of the brain that controls speech output, but their input area is intact.”
More importantly, Knight said their research is important for simply understanding how the brain works.
“Think of the number of things you do in a day cognitively - word understanding or motor control or how you’re paying attention to something. We don’t really know a lot about how the brain works in supporting the things you’re doing right now,” Knight said. “If we can figure those things out, it will have huge implications for understanding normal cognition and it will have important implications for a whole host of psychiatric disorders.”
But in terms of becoming a mind reader, Knight said people won’t be eavesdropping on peoples’ inner monologues any time soon. Unless they plan on getting surgery.
“You can’t broadcast your thoughts unless there’s an electrode there,” Knight said. “So if you have a significant other, you can implant them and potentially hear what they’re thinking.”
“Of course it would require a neurosurgeon, so I don’t think that trend will sweep the nation,” Knight jokingly added.
Knight, Pasley and their colleagues published their findings Tuesday in the open-access journal PLos Biology.