This Week In Mind Manipulation

by Tracy R. Walsh

Nathan Ingraham reports on a major advance in brain-to-brain communication:

Using a non-invasive brain-to-brain setup, a researcher in one lab was able to send a signal from his brain to control the movements of a second researcher in a lab on the other side of campus. It’s believed to be the first human brain-to-brain interface; previous demonstrations have featured rat-to-rat and human-to-rat communication.

The demonstration focused on a simple computer game: Rajesh Rao, a professor at UW who has worked on brain-computer interfacing for more than a decade, looked at a screen and had to fire a cannon to shoot down an enemy plane while avoiding friendly planes. On the other side of campus, Andrea Stocco had the keyboard to execute those commands, but couldn’t see the game itself. But using their brain-to-brain interface, Rao imagined that he was using his right hand to click the space bar on a keyboard  and Stocco’s right hand carried out the command without any conscious movement on his part. Stocco likened it to an involuntary twitch or a nervous tic.

John Biggs emphasizes that this “is not mind control”:

The subject cannot be controlled against his or her will and neither party can “read” each other’s thoughts. Think of this as sending a small shock controlled via the Internet to trigger a fairly involuntary motion.

But Dan Farber sees big possibilities:

“It’s very much a first step, but it shows what is possible,” [project contributor Dr. Chantel] Prat said. “Right now, the only way to transfer information from one brain to another is with words,” she said. With advances in computer science and neuroscience, people could eventually perform complicated tasks, such as flying an airplane, and dancing the tango, by transferring information in a noninvasive way from one brain to another. “You can imagine all complex motor skills, which are difficult to verbalize, are just chains of procedures,” Prat said.