The Matter of Mind

Tom James @ 02-06-2008

It is always difficult to predict the next big revolution in science and technology. However it seems extremely likely that the scientific and technological history of the next thirty years will be dominated by discoveries and revelations about that most complex of organs: the human brain.

The latest discovery by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh reported in The Guardian concerns how words are encoded in the brain. The scientists have developed a device that can read a person’s mind from brain scans.

Once it has been trained on an individual subject’s thoughts, the computer model can analyse new brain scan images and work out which noun a person is thinking about – even with words that the model has never encountered before.

The model is based on the way nouns are associated in the brain with verbs such as see, hear, listen and taste. The research will inevitably raise fears that scientists could soon be able to read a person’s mind without them realising.

Unfortunately prospective telepaths are going to be disappointed: first because the device needs to be “trained” for each individual and secondly because the person as to be lying perfectly still in an MRI scanner.

According to one of the researchers, computer scientist Tom Mitchell:

“…the brain represents the meaning of a concrete noun in areas of the brain associated with how people sense it or manipulate it. The meaning of an apple, for instance, is represented in brain areas responsible for tasting, for smelling, for chewing. An apple is what you do with it. Our work is a small but important step in breaking the brain’s code.”

Meanwhile in Japan a paralysed man has been able to manipulate a virtual Internet character:mind

The patient, who has suffered paralysis for more than 30 years, can barely bend his fingers due to a progressive muscle disease so cannot use a mouse or keyboard in the traditional way.

In the experiment, he wore headgear with three electrodes monitoring brain waves related to his hands and legs. Even though he cannot move his legs, he imagined that his character was walking.

The potential in this research is mind-blowing. Imagine a video game controlled by thought. Imagine the educational opportunities of fully immersive and fully interactive virtual worlds. Many people already live a large part of their lives in virtual relities of one sort or another. And if they can respond to your merest thought they would become ever more compelling places.

[First story from The Guardian and PhysOrg][Second story from Physorg][image by Redvers]

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