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Scientists Figure out How to Transmit Thoughts Over the Internet

Researchers have figured out how to send thoughts over the Internet using a brain-to-brain connection and a huge magnet. What could go wrong?

It sounds kind of cool, at face-value: two people can play a game over the Internet by reading each other’s thoughts. They don’t have to look at each other, and they don’t have to talk to each other. The details of the experiment, and its findings, are published in the journal PLOS One:

“In the experiment, two participants (an ‘inquirer’ and a ‘respondent’) played a question-answering game similar to ’20 Questions.’ The respondent is given an object (e.g., ‘dog’) that is unknown to the inquirer and that the inquirer has to guess.

The inquirer asks a question about the object by selecting a question (using a mouse) from questions displayed on a screen. The question is then presented visually to the respondent through a web interface. The respondent answers ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” directly through their brain signals by paying attention to one of two flashing LEDs (‘Yes’ = 13 Hz; ‘No’ = 12 Hz).

The BBI uses EEG to decode the respondent’s answer, and a TMS apparatus to convey the answer to the inquirer by generating a visual percept through stimulation for ‘Yes’ and the absence of percept for ‘No.’ In the figure, the BBI system is highlighted in red.”

Researchers Andrea Stocco and Chantel Prat say the experiment shows it’s possible to take information from one person’s brain and stick it in another person’s brain without much communication at all.

The participants could only send “Yes” or “No” answers to one another, but they got the answers right an astonishing 72% of the time. That’s kind of incredible, considering the inquirer and the respondent were a mile away from each other during the experiment.

Researchers outfitted the respondent with a cap connected to an electroencephalograph (EEG), which picks up signals from the brain and records brain activity. The inquirer also wore a cap with a magnetic coil placed behind the area of the brain that controls the visual cortex. NBC News explains:

“The questioner sent one of the three questions to the respondent via computer, the respondent looked at the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ light, and that signal went back to the TMS machine. A ‘yes’ answer would elicit a strong TMS pulse, which creates a signal perceived by the brain as a pulse, a blob or a line called a phosphene.

A “no” answer sent a weaker signal, too low to create a phosphene.”

Stocco from UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences says:

“This is the most complex brain-to-brain experiment, I think, that’s been done to date in humans. It uses conscious experiences through signals that are experienced visually, and it requires two people to collaborate.”

Now the researchers are preparing to try to transmit more complex data. They believe the process could be used for “brain tutoring” – transferring signals from healthy brains to developmentally-impaired ones. They say it may also someday allow an alert individual to transmit his brain state to someone who has difficulty paying attention.


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