The Science Behind ‘Brain Reading’

By Laura Grima, Psychology student at Royal Holloway

For those of us who enjoy a good superhero comic, the notion of mind reading is not unfamiliar; take Professor Charles Xavier from the X-Men series, who, without much effort, can delve into the deepest, darkest thoughts and secrets of any individual whom he wishes to target. As appealing as this concept is, few would claim it is anything more than mere science fiction and fantasy. However, some recent research suggests that we may be a step closer to mind reading (or, rather, ‘brain reading’) than many of us may realise – and that neuropsychology might have the answer.

Professor Charles Xavier from X-men

Professor Charles Xavier from X-men

There has been a recent surge of investigations in this area, though the brain reading demonstrated by these studies is perhaps not quite as skilful or precise as Professor Xavier is capable of. There are two main branches of these techniques that are being developed, each of which approach the field from a different angle; on the one hand, there are a growing number of studies focusing on the prediction of intentions, and on the other, there are studies which claim that brain reading may be the basis of a new form of forensic ‘fingerprinting’.

The idea that by interpreting brain scans, one can reveal the intentions of a person before they’ve even made a movement, is perhaps slightly unnerving. And yet there is growing evidence that this can be done – and with an increasing accuracy. For example, in one recent study, subjects were able to freely decide which of two tasks they wanted to perform. They did not reveal their choice until after a delay, but it was within this delay that brain activity was measured using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, a form of brain imaging which measures changes in blood flow in different areas of the brain). The researchers honed in on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain which deals with planning and goal-related processing, and was able to decode the brain imaging to reveal which of the two options the participants had chosen up to a 70% accuracy rate. Plus, with the development of more sophisticated programming to do this decoding, it would appear that these accuracy rates are only going to improve. Similarly, it may be possible to apply this technology to complex decision-making. Very impressive stuff!

However, one might question the applied value of being able to predict a person’s decision in such a way. A suggestion by one prominent researcher in the field, John-Dylan Haynes, is that such technology could be used to aid people suffering from paralysis to perform complex actions by using computer-assisted prosthetic devices. The technology used is able to detect the behavioural intentions of the patient – intentions that the patient is not able to carry out – and is then able to convert these intentions into actions as performed by the prostheses. Such technology has already been  implemented with some success.

So what of the other branch of brain reading, that is brain ‘fingerprinting’ ? We all know about the physiological techniques used in forensics, such as polygraph tests, as popularised by Jeremy Kyle. These measure indices such as blood pressure, respiration, and pulse when participants answer either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a series of questions concerning the incident at hand. However, this is an indirect measure and its reliability has been questioned. Can brain ‘fingerprinting’ be the answer?

Polygraph test

Polygraph test

The method behind this idea involves the revealing of so-called guilty knowledge; the suspect is presented with a stream of information, the majority of which is neutral and has no particular relevance. Incriminating details are embedded into this irrelevant stream – details that only the true culprit would be aware of – and their electrical brain activity, as measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG), is interpreted. What the interpreters are looking for is a particular type of electrical activity that occurs 300 milliseconds after the stimulus is presented, known as a P300. If a P300 is detected, the suspect is thought to recognise the stimulus, showing memory of it – and ‘proving’ their guilt.

This technique has some obvious advantages in comparison to the traditional physiological techniques as previously used, such as the polygraph test; brain fingerprinting is not dependent or affected by emotional responses, and one has to question the effectiveness of a polygraph test on a psychopath who does not experience a normal emotional range, for example. In this way, brain fingerprinting bypasses these measures and, it is argued, is subsequently a more direct measure of guilt. However, it should be noted that a brain fingerprint does not measure whether someone is lying, but rather whether they have already encountered certain information before, and because of this the technique has come under some criticism. Despite this, brain fingerprinting has been used in court both to prosecute, such as in the case of Aditi Sharma, a 24-year-old who was found guilty of murder based on the results of an electroencephalogram, and also to reverse convictions, such as in the case of Terry Harrington in 2000.

So it would appear that brain reading is something not only being developed by researchers in the scientific world, but is also something being applied to the real world, potentially affecting the lives of many. With such implications comes not only responsibility, but philosophical questions, namely concerning ethics: is it right to be able to do these things, to, in a sense, ‘look’ into someone’s mind and try to predict what they’re about to do, or to find out what knowledge they have and what they lack?

This is where neuroethics comes in, the ethics of neuroscience. As much as many neuroscientists may view their field as pure, hard science, brain reading is one of many examples which pulls these experimenters back into considering the human side of things – appropriate, since ultimately they are dealing with humans, as opposed to biological machines. Brain reading presents the questions not only of whether it’s okay to delve into a person’s mind, but whether we’re actually bound by our morals to do so; after all, if we can predict a person’s intent, perhaps we can predict whether a person will commit a crime in the future? Is it okay to prosecute someone for something they haven’t yet done? What impact does this have on the concept of free will?

Admittedly, the technology is far off from enabling neuroscientists to read and interpret random thoughts, to literally ‘read a mind’. However, the aforementioned findings are encouraging, and hence neuroethics is a rapidly developing field trying to keep up with these technological advancements, asking the big questions whilst the neuroscientists delve into the details. There’s no doubt that there may be positive contributions from this research, such as allowing paralysed individuals to manipulate prostheses, but despite this, many outside the area are wary of some of the less savoury possibilities.

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About rhulscience

The Faculty of Science at Royal Holloway, University of London
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