Do you mind reading in a brain scanner? New research shows that it is possible

Image by Jesper Klausen via Getty

Scientists at the University of Texas were listening to a story in a brain scanner, after which a computer was able to reproduce the outline of what was said. This also worked when test subjects imagined a story, or when they watched a silent movie.

Although the computer “translation” was not without errors, it often went a long way in the right direction: nine out of sixteen core questions could have been answered correctly if only the “decoded” computer version of Text. visual story.

What’s also innovative about the work of computer and neuroscientists Alexander Huth and Jerry Tang is that their method doesn’t require major brain surgery. The researchers simply put the test subjects into a brain scanner: an fMRI scanner in this case, which shows which parts of the brain are active. “This makes this method applicable on a much wider scale than the neurosurgical method,” they wrote in. condition Natural neuroscience.

Until now, it was only possible to derive individual words or sentences from brain signals in this way, and then only when the computer was given a choice from a limited number of options. Now, for the first time, entire stories have been read from the brain, each fifteen minutes long.

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“Awesome study,” replies Iris Groene, who also does research at the intersection of computer and neuroscience at the University of Amsterdam. Recently, it has been in the news that it is possible to use a brain scanner to reconstruct images that someone has seen. Now it seems that it is also possible with what a person has heard or said internally, with language. This is really the beginning of mind reading.

Groen points out that this is another application of artificial intelligence. The researchers used GPT (Generic Pre-Trained Transformer), which is something that everyone is familiar with now through ChatGPT. With this said, the computer always predicted the next phrase in the stories the subjects were told. Then it was checked which of the predicted options best matched the measured brain activity, and thus the entire story was reconstructed.

American scientists confirm that this can be useful for people who have lost their ability to speak. They show that their method works not only when the whole brain is scanned, but also when looking at a single brain region: apparently the same information is displayed in different places. This can be useful when some parts of the brain are damaged.


But of course less noble applications are also conceivable, for example when not even ideas are free to dictatorship. As a reassurance, US scientists write that a computer is less successful at reading minds when test subjects do not cooperate. For example, if they list as many animals as they can or read a table 7 times while listening to a story, it is nearly impossible to extract the content of that story from their brain signals.

Example of sentences read from a person's brain.  Blue indicates accurate translations, purple indicates fairly correct guesses, and red indicates errors.  Picture Nature Neuroscience

Example of sentences read from a person’s brain. Blue indicates accurate translations, purple indicates fairly correct guesses, and red indicates errors.Picture Nature Neuroscience

In addition, brain signals differ slightly from person to person, so much so that each individual’s computer must be retrained. But, say the researchers: Where collaboration is still needed now, it may be different in the future.

Pim Haselager, professor of the social implications of artificial intelligence at Radboud University Nijmegen, is also not confident about ensuring mental privacy. This is true for that Brain reading Person’s cooperation required. But on the other hand: You can see it when someone suppresses thoughts. This can also be used against him.

Take sexual preference, for example. Haselager: “If you show people pictures of homosexuals and heterosexuals, you can use an fMRI scanner to read what turns them on the most. And yes, it is possible to suppress that excitement. But you can also see that in the brain.

Move the soul

In short, freedom of thought is at stake, Haselager warns. Your thoughts, feelings, sexual preferences, political preferences, dreams: everything can be visualized more and more with the right equipment. in 1984 George Orwell said that the only privacy is inside your skull. Well, that time has passed. This means we have to start talking about the right to mental privacy soon.

Although, according to Haselager, there are still practical limitations for those curious about the inner workings of others. An fMRI scanner is a huge device with incredibly powerful magnets. To give you an idea: If you were to stand next to her with a bunch of keys in your pocket, they would fly right through your clothes. It is not something you use in everyday life. Not yet at least.

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