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Medical Mind Reading: How Advances in fMRI Technology

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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
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Medical Mind Reading: How Advances in fMRI Technology

Catherine Barie

The term "mind reading" encompasses the ability to attribute mental states to others, to make sense of one another's behavior and actions in addition to predicting thoughts, feelings, and future actions. Individuals exercise this technique on a constant basis, often without realizing it. This subconscious assessment, or "mind reading," is essential for operating in a complex social environment, as it is necessary for "normal function" in everyday person-to-person interaction. While this capability is valued, its accuracy is limited simply because the assessment is basically a guess based upon cues and inferences; the thoughts of a given person are still clandestine and personal, effectively maintaining them as the sole property of the individual. However, as modern technologies become increasingly complex, this barrier between "public knowledge" and actual thought and perception begins to dissolve. Studies involving neuronal activity and brain imaging are encroaching on the inner workings of the mind. While this does appear to be beneficial and a sign of progress, especially in the realm of understanding neurological disorders, there are drawbacks: where is the line and what are the implications of these medical developments?

Even though brain-imaging technology existed prior to the 1980s, the development of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) revolutionized the industry. fMRI is minimally invasive, and unlike some imaging methods previously used, it does not require or result in exposure to radiation. fMRI machines create pictures of the brain by using the magnetic properties of blood to monitor blood flow to different regions of the brain. This enables physicians and scientists to see changes in blood flow as they happen. Regions with increased blood flow are active (necessary for whichever process is occurring). Thus, this "dynamic brain mapping" makes it possible for scientists to determine when certain brain regions become active and the duration of said activity (6). However, there are some drawbacks to fMRI technology, namely the scans require the patient to remain completely still for period of time up to twenty minutes and the vagueness of the results: "It is difficult to determine if the subject was thinking about something that caused certain parts of the brain to activate, if the scanner picked up real data or noise, and so on" (6). Despite these shortcomings, fMRI remains the most effective brain-imaging technology currently available, especially when used in conjunction an electroencephalogram.

Since fMRI allows scientists to pinpoint activated regions of the brain with remarkable accuracy, it is often used to scan the brain as a subject is performing a particular activity. For instance, the subject may have been asked to tap a finger repeatedly. The regions responsible for this continual action would show a marked increase in blood flow, thereby indicating the activated region of the brain. This sort of research seemed to reach a plateau in that numerous studies merely confirmed that different regions would be activated while subjects performed various tasks without offering new insights. However, two recent studies introduced a new approach to fMRI research, the implications of which are still reverberating in scientific circles as well as the news media.

The first study, conducted by a team of Japanese scientists, used fMRI to scan the brains of subjects while they viewed stimuli positioned in different orientations. The stimuli were "lines" (slits); they could appear at eight different angles. They found that the subjects tended to "favor" certain orientations over others, meaning that some orientations elicited a stronger response than others. They also found that they could predict, with reasonable accuracy, which orientation the subject was viewing solely by looking at which brain regions were activated (3). After establishing the connection between the orientation of the object and the corresponding activated regions of the brain, the scientists turned to the issue of mind reading, or using information about brain state to determine mental state (3). They assessed the connection between brain state and mental state by presenting the subject with two sets of overlapping lines (in different orientations) and requested that the subject choose one of the two to focus upon. As a result, it was "...shown that fMRI activity patterns in the human visual cortex contain reliable orientation information that allows for detailed prediction of perceptual and mental states...Moreover, activity patterns evoked by unambiguous stimuli could reliably predict which of two competing orientations was the focus of a subject's attention. These results demonstrate a tight coupling between brain states and subjective mental states" (3). Thus, the author are suggesting that a link does exist between brain state and mental state so that the analysis of fMRI may, at some point, come to include interpretation of mental state (mind-reading).

Moreover, researchers in England conducted a similar experiment. They used fMRI scans to monitor blood flow to different regions of the brain. In this experiment, the subject saw two images in rapid succession (the first image was shown very briefly so that the subject was not conscious of it). Even though the subject can only recall seeing one image, there clearly were two separate activation patterns, meaning that the brain is aware of the other image. So, the evidence indicated that both images received some cortical processing: "This enabled us to infer, from single fMRI measurements of V1 activity, which of two oriented stimuli was being viewed by our participants. We were able to make such predictions even when the stimuli were completely invisible to the participants" (2). Since the scientists were able to predict which image orientation the subject viewed, even when the image was "invisible" because it was shown so briefly that the subject was not conscious of it, there clearly is some cortical processing. This is a sort of subconscious memory – the individual saw the image, but has no conscious memory of it. Instead, the only evidence of the "invisible image" is the activation of different regions of the brain. Fundamentally, this is an example of mind reading, even though the individual himself is unaware of the "invisible image." In the end though, the scientists concluded that cortical activity in the V1 does not necessarily imply conscious visual perception (2). The implication here is that analysis of fMRI scans can include interpretation of subconscious perception, which is an instance of mind reading. As one of the researchers commented: "'This is the first basic step to reading somebody's mind. If our approach could be expanded upon, it might be possible to predict what someone was thinking or seeing from their brain activity alone'" (1). Thus, this researcher believes that fMRI technology may soon be used to detect thoughts by analyzing which brain regions are activated.

Although these studies have clearly brought forth new knowledge and understanding of how the human brain works, the implications of this research also introduce new issues. Specifically, where is the dividing line between the advancement of science and privacy (with relation to an individual's thoughts)? This presents an ethical dilemma: it can be done, but should it be? This technology allows researchers to "see" the thoughts of another; even though this is at an early stage, the direction this research may potentially take in the future is startling. As Dr. Adrian Burgess, a member of the Imperial College at London's department of cognitive neuropsychology, said: "'It could potentially be used to find out people's latent attitudes and beliefs that they are not aware of...You could use it to detect people's prejudices, intuition and things that are hidden and influence our behaviour'" (1). This basically invades the privacy usually afforded to each individual; there is a conscious choice about what it said or unsaid, and this technology could possibly obliterate this choice.

The idea of "mind reading" is a disturbing idea to many people, so much so that when research planned by NASA several years ago had implications similar to the two aforementioned studies, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. NASA then issued a press release stating that it "'does not have the capability to read minds, nor are we suggesting that would be done...'We have not approved any research in this area and because of the sensitivity of such research, we will seek independent review before we do'" (5). Clearly, the idea of "mind reading" had elicited a negative reaction; the idea that one's thoughts may become public knowledge is disturbing, albeit far off. (The aforementioned studies, however, did made advances in this direction.) Yet, NASA did pursue some research in this area. Last year, they published their findings in a "mind reading study" they conducted. They developed a computer program that detected nerve signals and patterns sent from the brain to the vocal cords. When the subject thought about speaking, they noticed that signals were sent to the vocal cords even if the subject said nothing aloud. These signals were interpreted by the program and then translated to specific words (4). The program could only recognize approximately sixteen words (ten of which were numbers), but, this is a step towards interpreting internal monologue (mind reading).

In conclusion, modern technologies have become increasingly complex, allowing scientists to see which regions of the brain are active during a given activity. This essentially eliminates the barrier between perception and actual thought as studies involving neuronal activity and brain imaging encroach on the inner workings of the human mind. Although these studies have clearly brought forth new knowledge and understanding of how the human brain works, the implications of this research also introduce new ethical dilemmas: it can be done, but should it be? Specifically, where is the dividing line between what should be private and public knowledge? What effects will these medical developments have within society and day-to-day human interaction? These developments basically illuminate and personify the ethical issues that accompany advancements in science. As this research continues to evolve and become increasingly complex, the intrusion into private though will probably become much more noticeable, forcing the issue of individual privacy to the forefront. Ethics and personal rights now seem to be at odds with science and technology, forcing society to adapt in order to accommodate everyone. Ironically, it appears that these advances are forcing people to think about ethics and morality to define what is or is not right, which may account for the recent "return to religion" in American society. Basically, medicine and morality are "evolving" at different rates, so that the result is a conflict between ethics and medicine. It will be interesting to see how this research progresses, the direction it takes, and the effects it will have on society.


1)Brain scan "sees hidden thoughts"

2)Predicting the orientation of invisible stimuli from activity in human primary visual cortex

3)Decoding the visual and subjective contents of the human brain

4)NASA develops 'mind-reading' system

5)NASA Rejects Claims it Plans Mind Reading Capability

6)Brain imaging


Comments made prior to 2007

Mind reading is happening now -- I call it 'brain rape' The U.S. Gov. has the technology to interpret and translate every thought and decipher to language. I have government officials intercepting my every thought. They are reading me as I am typing this. They have had this technological capacity for four years now...they have been withholding this tech. advdancement from the gen. pub. PLEASE HELP ME!!!! I know it can be done -- it is happening... Brain reading is true ... Stacy Sola, 11 November 2007


stacy ann sangmaster sola's picture

read my mind

I am still here.

Stacy Ann Sangmaster Sola's picture

new guests

please keep me informed

CHAD MILLER's picture

i wana meet stacy sola i am

i wana meet stacy sola i am experianceing the same thing please contact me

CHAD MILLER's picture



Stacy Ann Sangmaster Sola's picture

for anyone else in the "know"...

Take it easy. Stay in the here and the now. Think Tangible and concrete. Do not ever admit it to a psych doc unless you want to be put away for good. Refuse all meds.