When someone says “I can see what you mean”, what are they REALLY saying? Most people probably mean that they can picture the other person’s description of an idea, object or event as some sort of visual representation in their own mind. Researchers at ATR in Japan have set out to do the same thing with brain analysis technology, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the human visual cortex to capture brain activity associated with viewing images of shapes or letters of the alphabet. According to researcher Dr. Kang Cheng this may ultimately result in the ability to “read a person’s thoughts with some degree of accuracy” within 10 years.
(above image was extracted from Fig. 2 Reconstruction Results, in article cited below)
An article in the current edition of US Science magazine Neuron (Vol. 60 Issue 5 Dec. 10th 2008) titled “Visual image reconstruction from human brain activity using a combination of multiscale local image decoders” (Miyawaki, Y. et al, 2008) describes the process used to capture and reproduce images seen by test subjects for 12 second intervals. An associated video file on the article’s Neuron website is interesting. It shows an animation of the pattern sequences produced by the mapping software when the test subjects looked at various shapes. In the image below, you can begin to see how the brain integrates input in a superpositional way to represent visual data as a series of partial image sequences (or at least that’s how I interpreted it).
(above image was extracted from composite video associated with article cited above)
The implications of all of this are mind-blowing (actually, mind-sucking somehow seems more appropriate here). Imagine using your eyes as (reproducible) scanning or recording devices. What if you forgot to pay attention to the lecturer as he or she scribbled a complex formula on the whiteboard because you were taking a call on the mobile? You could replay that bit on your laptop later- provided you were looking at (or through) the whiteboard at the time. On a more sinister note, brain-scanning implies the potential for brain-monitoring. It can’t be a huge step to move from monitoring a person’s heart rate/respiration rate/ blood pressure for medical reasons to monitoring their mind for psychological (or political) reasons.