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Mind-reading in real life: Study shows it can be done (but they’ll have to catch you first)

It's not a given that experimentally obtained results accurately reflect goings-on in the real world. The former are obtained under rigidly controlled, reproducible conditions in which every possible confounding factor has been either eliminated or statistically accounted for; the latter, we all know, is a chaotic kaleidoscope of nonrecurring coincidences.

Previous research (including a study by Stanford's Mike Greicius, MD, that I wrote about a couple of years ago) has enabled scientists to determine, retroactively, which of several different types of mental activity an experimental subject was engaged in while sequestered inside an MRI scanning chamber.

Now Stanford neuroscientist Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, and company have demonstrated that with the right hookup, you can see what someone is thinking about even when they're not in a tightly controlled environment. In a study just published in Nature Communications and described for nonscientists here, Parvizi and his colleagues were able to discern a particular electrical-activity pattern in the brains of the people they were studying whenever those people were thinking about numbers or even general quantitative terms such as "more than" or "the day before yesterday." This pattern, first identified in more-standard experimental circumstances, could be observed even when the experimental subjects were more or less just going about their everyday lives.

Well, not exactly. These subjects were patients with recurring drug-resistant epileptic seizures, who were spending a week in a hospital during which their brains were continuously monitored so neurologists could locate the exact spot in these patients brains (it's different for each person) where the seizures were originating. Doing this required surgically placing recording electrodes against the surface of patients' brains, leaving patients free to eat, drink, think, talk on the telephone and move around - albeit tethered to a "leash": the cable linking the electrodes to a recording device.

The patients were also (with their consent) monitored continuously by video cameras. Later, Parvizi's team found that every time a patient mentioned a quantitative term or heard one mentioned, the signature electrical spike occurred, and vice versa. Think a thought, cause a spike.

This opens the door to the prospect that in some dark, dystopian future one or another Evil Entity will be able to read - or, worse, control! - our every thought after, say, slipping a chip under our skulls while we're unknowingly abducted and anesthetized. Some of the globe's looser lips are already claiming this kind of thing is being done in the here and  now.

So I asked Stanford legal scholar and bioethicist Hank Greely, JD, what he thought about it. As per my news release about Parvizi's study, Greely's response (in so many words) was: Get a grip. "Practically speaking, it's not the simplest thing in the world to go around implanting electrodes in people's brains," he said. "It will not be done tomorrow, or easily, or surreptitiously."

Parvizi wholeheartedly agreed that it's a bit premature to be freaking out about impending mind-control schemes. "We're still in early days with this," he told me. "If this is a baseball game, we're not even in the first inning."

Previously: We've got your number: Exact spot in brain where numeral recognition takes place revealed, Metamorphosis: At the push of a button, a familiar face becomes a strange one and A one-minute mind-reading machine? Brain-scan results distinguish mental states
Photo by Сергей Кураженко

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