Humans communicating with just the power of their minds, often referred to as telepathy, has long been a staple of science fiction. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Washington has brought that vision into the realm of reality. The team successfully sent electrical signals from the brains of two humans to another human, Scientific American reports.
According to the team’s paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the accomplishment marks, “The first multi-person non-invasive direct brain-to-brain interface for collaborative problem solving.”
The research involved three human beings—two “senders” and one “receiver.” Separated from each other, the receiver had to rely on the senders to relay info with their minds alone on how to make a block fit with other blocks in a simple video game.
To Rotate or Not to Rotate
In order to relay the message, the senders utilized electroencephalographs (EEGs). These sensors track and record brain activity. The senders could see the orientation of the block. They would then transmit the message on whether or not the block needed to rotate in order to fit into the puzzle.
To send the message, the senders focused on flashing lights. If the block needed to rotate, they would focus on a light flashing at a high frequency. If the block needed to remain the same, the sender focused on a light flashing with a low frequency. The disparate speeds elicited different electric activity in the brain for the EEGs to capture. Then, the machines relayed the message through a computer interface to the receiver.
If the command was to rotate, the message manifested itself as a magnetic pulse that went to the receiver via a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) device. The magnetic pulse would cause a flash of light, called a phosphene, in the receiver’s field of vision. This let them know to turn the block. Conversely, if no flash appeared in a certain amount of time, the receiver knew not to turn the block.
Once the receiver had input from both senders, they would then tell the computer whether or not to rotate the block with their own mind via an EEG. When the receiver had manipulated the block, the experiment was over and all three subjects got the results. The receiver would then asses the accuracy of each sender. The senders would do the same for the receiver’s actions.
After an initial round, the teams were given the chance to step up their performance. Furthermore, the scientists escalated the challenge by subjecting one of the senders to interference noise. This compromised the accuracy of the sender. Confronted with conflicting results, the receivers quickly learned who was the more accurate sender.
Overall, five different sender/receiver teams participated in “BrainNet,” as the researchers called it. The results were impressive. On average, the teams hit upwards of 80 percent accuracy in their tasks.
Nonetheless, there are some ethical implications of the study. The negative connotations on the phrase “mind control” are enough to ring some alarm bells. Having private thoughts is part of what gives individual humans their autonomy.
As Scientific American’s Robert Martone pointed out, “The content concealed in privacy of one’s mind is the core of individual autonomy. Whatever we stand to gain in collaboration or computing power by directly linking brains may come at the cost of things that are far more important.”
This is precisely why sci-fi involving telepathy could fall into another genre—horror.