Japanese scientists edge forward in the race for mind reading tech

by Tasman Richardson

In a science lab in Kyoto, Japanese scientists are recording the movie of the mind‘s eye. They’ve developed a way to capture images directly from a subject’s brain using an MRI scanner by placing you in a scanner and then showing you a series of pictures. The pictures come to you through your eyes and are converted by your brain into a variety of electrical impulses. All those complex bits of activity are recorded and then the computer’s difficult task is to interpret them correctly, and offer up its best guess as to what it thinks you’re looking at. So far the results are a bit murky, like looking at the world through someone else’s coke bottle glasses. The distortion is understandable though, after all, you’re used to looking at things with the hardware you were born with, whereas the computer has to do its best with nothing more than brain activity scans. Amazingly, it still manages to produce images that are recognizable, albeit, a bit creepy. It’s the first time that a technology can legitimately claim to be “mind reading” rather than playing match maker by pulling from a preprogrammed collection of image possibilities (accomplished in previous experiments by Jack Gallant and colleagues at University of California Berkeley).

As MRI scans improve and gain more clarity, Yukiyasu Kamitani (ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories) says they’ll be able to add more pixels to the images produced and possibly even colour. As Kamitiani explains “By analysing the brain signals when someone is seeing an image, we can reconstruct that image,” which means that any image in the mind is up for grabs. As you may have guessed, images you might prefer to keep to yourself such as daydreams or even dreams you have in your sleep are potential candidates, giving new meaning to the term “dreamcatcher”. Imagine watching a dvd of your own dreams, some of which you may of forgotten. John-Dylan Haynes (Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany) has praised the breakthrough as “a very significant step forward” but has also raised concerns in the area of marketing, in particular “neural marketing” in which advertising could be tailored to target the thoughts of a target audience. Haynes called for “clear ethical guidelines” but was supportive of the benefits of the research, saying: “A lot of people want their minds to be read – take for example a paralysed person. They want us to read their thoughts,” he says. “But it shouldn’t be possible to do this for commercial purposes.” Naturally, where there are volunteers, commercial research will be possible but it’s still too early to say what could be gleaned from this kind of intimate insight into the consumer mind. Is there a Freud in the house?

To learn more about this technology, check out these video links to see the results in action:

Japanese Dream Recording Machine

(UC Berkley) Brain Scanner Records Dreams on Video