Have you ever concentrated really hard, closed your eyes, and then tried to do something with your brain? Maybe guess which playing card your friend is holding, or get the pencil in front of you to slide across the table? Or is that just me?
We’ve always been told that our brains have far more power than we’re able to harness, and a recent experiment from the University of Washington backs that up: a researcher controlled the motions of another researcher across campus by sending a brain signal (through the internet, of course). One of the researchers, Rajesh Rao (left in the picture) was just hanging out, you know, using his brain to do some hands-free computer playing thanks to an electroencephalography machine. That’s pretty cool in itself — wouldn’t you love to be able to play video games at the same time you’re painting your nails or petting the cat or, if you’re a little wacky, playing a second video game?
Anyway, so Rao is playing this game with his mind while his colleague, Andrea Stocco, is hanging out across campus wearing a magnetic stimulation coil (very similar to the kind patients wear when receiving transcranial magnetic stimulation, a noninvasive brain-stimulation treatment for psychological and neurological disorders). The coil is positioned over his brain’s left motor cortex region, as marked by the purple swim cap he’s wearing. As Rao played the game, he imagined firing by moving his right hand. Immediately, Stocco’s right index finger involuntarily hit the space button on the keyboard, as though to fire. The activation of the neurons by the magnetic stimulation coil, along with the signal sent by Rao made Stocco’s brain believe it had to move his hand. He said the sensation felt like a nervous tic.
“The Internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains. We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain,” Stocco said. Is there anything the internet can’t do? Rao said it was “both exciting and eerie,” and that the “next step is having a more equitable two-way conversation directly between the two brains.”
This isn’t the first brain-to-brain communication, but it is the first among humans. The experiment reminds me a lot of Miguel Nicolelis’s experiment in which a monkey controlled robots with its thoughts (the TED talk is below). Brain-to-brain communication has also occurred between rats and between a human and a rat (I wonder who was controlling whom here).
Of course, this raises the possibility that someone could control another’s brain or body without their permission — a technologically advanced “body snatcher” scenario. But Stocco’s wife and research partner, who helped conduct this experiment, assures us that “there’s no possible way the technology that we have could be used on a person unknowingly or without their willing participation,” given that it requires complex and specific equipment and conditions. I guess I really am writing this post myself.
Rao and Stocco will continue their work by conducting experiments allowing for the transmission of more complex information between the two brains. Eventually, they’ll recruit other subjects for the studies. Where can I sign up?