One Human Mind Controlling Another … Well, Sort Of:
University of Washington scientists have achieved what they call the first noninvasive human brain-to-brain interface, doing so without surgery or brain implants. We’ve seen similar things in rats, but this is the first time it’s been reported in humans. There’s a catch, though. There’s always a catch.
What they did: Two subjects, a sender and a receiver, sat in separate rooms wearing (silly-looking) EEG caps. The sender played a simple artillery-type video game, but instead of manually “pew-pew-ing” when he wanted to, he just thought about pulling the trigger.
The recipient had his finger on a trigger. He could not see the game screen and could not hear the sender. Between the two subjects was a pair of computers and brain-interpreting software. When the sender thought about firing, the recipient received a signal … and he pressed the trigger at precisely the right moment! BOOM!! Achievement unlocked!! You can watch a video of the experiment here.
What this means: Human brains can be connected, and information from one can be used to stimulate the other. Two of the most complex computers ever created are communicating through two considerably simpler computers, which is very cool.
So what’s the catch? It comes down to the word “specific”. I mean, there’s also the fact that this is coming from a press release and not a peer-reviewed research paper. That’s a big catch, but it only means that it’s preliminary, not wrong. The biggest thing is that this is certainly not the transmission of thoughts or specific brain signals between two human beings.
These researchers used a technique called EEG, those funny looking electrode caps we’re all familiar with. EEG is very good at sensing the brain’s electrical activity (like a motor signal that says “pull the trigger”) and recording it in real time (you see a blip as soon as the brain registers electrical activity). But EEG kind of sucks when it comes to spatial resolution. There’s better techniques for this kind of thing, but they are more complex.
Our brain is crowded with nearly a hundred billion neurons, and exponentially more connections between them. In the regions that control your movement, like pressing a video game trigger, they are packed in there like cellular sardines. but two neighboring neurons could be controlling very different actions. EEG can’t tell the difference, it doesn’t have the precision to read a signal and say “You meant to press the trigger” as opposed to “You meant to give the other researcher the bird”.
My guess is that the recipient did feel something, but there is so much unconscious activity going on in our brains that I have a hard time believing the command to “PUSH THE BUTTON” just fell out of the ether and he did it. He most likely got a very generalized brain buzz, and then just pushed the button.
The researchers claim this could one day be used to help someone land a plane if the pilot goes down, or communicate beyond language. Needless to say, I’m skeptical. Don’t put me on that plane.
But it’s still cool. This is another step in decoding the elaborate circuitry of the brain, and perhaps one day we will be able to recreate that information in meaningful ways, like hat-controlled prosthetic limbs, or automatic hunger-triggered pizza-ordering systems. But today is not that day (and the pizza lovers wept).