Please Ignore the Man in the White Coat Who Is Reading Your Mind

Photograph by Jon Feingersh

The rat is pinned down. It’s laying prostrate on what looks like a hospital bed with its head in some sort of vice. The rat is white and huge and has a black ribbon tied around the middle of its tail. Now and again, the tail flicks. Unremarkable, right?

Well, yes, except that the rat is having its mind controlled by human thought—and there’s evidence all around that our minds might soon come under control, too.

In April, when researchers from Harvard Medical School published the rat video on YouTube, they were demonstrating the creation of a brain-to-brain interface formed between human and vermin. Basically, the human could concentrate on a specific idea and—via something called transcranial focused ultrasound, or FUS—an impulse would be sent to excite the part of the rat’s brain that controls tail movement. The experiment worked 94 percent of the time, with a thought taking about 1.5 seconds to travel from human to rat.

At this point, you’re either overjoyed with wonder or checking to see if any online retailers offer much in the way of tin-foil hat wear. And it is indeed important to have a position on this type of technology because the twitchy rat seems like just the beginning of bizarre things to come.

Back in 2008, Japanese researchers discovered a way to monitor someone’s neural activity and figure out what object or word they are thinking of from a constrained set of choices.This year, scientists at Japan’s National Institute of Genetics recorded a video of a fish brain forming a thought by figuring out which neurons light up when the animal contemplated food. The chip maker Intel and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have done some very promising work around mind-reading with humans. They can ask a person to think about a specific object and can then determine—90 percent of the time—what that object is by watching brain activity on an fMRI machine. So far, the vocabulary for the tests is limited to about 1,000 words, and the subjects are merely picking between a couple of words at a time, but their success rate is good enough to conceive of people being able to turn a smartphone or a TV on and off via thoughts alone.

Now we learn this week in Scientific American that some neuroscientists at MIT have gone from reading minds to messing with them. The researchers have found memories in the minds of mice, tweaked the memories, and watched as the mice change their behavior based on the synthetic thoughts. It would seem that a lot of this work occurred via chemicals, rather than machinery hooked up to brains or other body parts.

Rest assured that the NSA is no doubt hard at work learning how to harness this technology. If any of your friends turn up twitchy—with black ribbons tied around their body parts—just remember that it’s part of keeping the country safe.

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