Back in February, BBC ran a story about fMRI researchers – shock, horror! – now being able to read people’s minds. In actual fact, the story was a bit more benign. Using a fairly new (and little used) type of fMRI analysis called “multivariate analysis” researchers such as Geraint Rees and John-Dylan Haynes are presently attempting to associate individual mental states with specific patterns of BOLD signal activity. If the mental states of interest can be precisely delineated it is possible to determine if a subject is “in” mental state A or B just from looking at the scanned fMRI data. For instance, in one experiment, described in the BBC story, subjects were asked to either subtract or add numbers shown on a screen without telling the experimenters which of the two potential choices they actually went with. Just by looking at the obtained scans Haynes and his colleagues were able to infer, in 70 % of the cases, whether the subject chose to add or substract – thus, to some degree, being able to “read” the subjects’ hidden intentions. Of course, in reality, the experimenters’ mind reading ability was extremely limited, being focused on only two, highly simple, forced choices. (If you want to read a good presentation of the mind reading possibilities offered by multivariate analysis, see this paper by Rees and Haynes.)
Yet, with all the recent talk about fMRI lie detection and what have you, work such as Haynes and Rees’ on multivariate analysis raises a number of interesting neuroethical questions. On May 9, Haynes is convening a bunch of top-notch speakers to discuss these questions, including Daniel Langleben (of fMRI lie detection fame), Adrian Owen, Henrik Walther, and Thomas Metzinger. He presents the colloquium with the following words:
Every thought is associated with a characteristic pattern of activation in the brain. By training a computer to recognize these patterns, it becomes possible to read a person’s thoughts from patterns of their cerebral activity. In this way a person’s brain activity can betray their thoughts and emotions, can gives clues whether they are lying, or can even predict what they are about to do.
This recent progress in brain science has made completely new insights into thought processes possible. We can now investigate how thoughts are stored in the brain, or how intentions unconsciously arise and affect our behavior. But these findings are not just of interest for the scientific disciplines involved. They have important implications for our understanding of human nature. Also, they lay foundations for important applications: For example, with the help of a “brain computer interfaces”, paralysed patients can control technical devices solely “with the power of their thoughts”.
In the 11th Berlin Colloquium, brain scientists from the USA, Canada and Europe will present this new field of “brain-reading”, while at the same time providing a forum for discussion on the future perspectives of these methods. In particular, the ethical question will be of interest, to which extent such “thought technology” is compatible with “mental privacy”.
It should be well worth your time going.