In a new study, performed at the University of California, Berkley, researchers scanned various regions of the brain to figure out an image that subjects were imagining.  (Source: Neuron)

The system use probabilistic math to match the results of the scan to a specific image in a database of 6 million images. The approach showed a good level of accuracy, with the images (right column) resembling the target image (left column) in both shape and content, though inherently differing slightly from it. Despite the minor errors, these results represent a major advance in attempts to digitally "read" the mind.  (Source: Neuron)
There's a still a ways to go before full mental snooping is possible, but a new study shows how far we've come

Mind reading, not of the neighborhood "psychic variety", but rather of a digital flavor, is a field characterized both by intense interest and controversy.  Some in government would love to be able to literally see what suspected criminals or terrorists  (or even citizens and soldiers) are thinking.  Other researchers would simply be thrilled at the prospect of being able to fully understand exactly how the human brain stores and process information.  Still others look forward to potential mind-controlled electronics, such as CAD software or automobiles.

At any rate, the art or science of capturing an image from brainwave activity took an important step forward thanks to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.  Researchers at U of C used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to peek at a subject's brain activity and attempt to read their thoughts.

A previous study had looked at using fMRI scans of parts of the brain linked to shape identification to correctly guess the a viewed image from a series of stock images.  Jack Gallant, a University of California, Berkeley neuroscientist who led the current effort, describes this previous work as similar to "the magician's card trick where you pick a card from a deck, and he guesses which card you picked. The magician knows all the cards you could have seen."

The new study expands this approach greatly by also scanning parts of the brain used for general classifications like "person", "car", or "building".  Utilizing Bayesian probabilistic math, researchers armed with a database of over 6 million possible results and the new scans were able to go beyond identification into the realm of reconstruction, coming up with an image corresponding to what the person was thinking of, after an initial calibration to adjust for mental differences.

Describes Professor Gallant, "[In the new study] the card could be a photograph of anything in the universe. The magician has to figure it out without ever seeing it."

The new study is reported in the journal Neuron and was coauthored by Berkeley postdoctoral researcher Thomas Naselaris.

With the current study researchers can get a general idea of what the person is thinking about, but lack the ability to literally draw a picture-perfect scene of the what the subject is visualizing.  This is because imaging techniques such as fMRI lump millions of neurons into single output blocks.  Frank Tong, a Vanderbilt University neuroscientist who evaluated the study describes, "At the finer level, there is a ton of information. We just don't have a way to tap into that without opening the skull and accessing it directly."

Supplementary scanning techniques, though, like optical laser scans or EEG readings could help improve the fidelity of the current information.  Professor Gallant states, "[In a few decades] you could use algorithms like this to decode other things than vision.  In theory, you could analyze internal speech. You could have someone talk to themselves, and have it come out in a machine." (Such devices currently exist, but not by tapping brainwaves... they tap neurons going to the voicebox)

Such thoughts certainly are not without alarming privacy and safety implications.  Still, such issues have seldom been able to hold back the progress of science and it looks like for better or worse, we're heading towards being able to read each others' minds, given the proper (expensive) tools.

"We shipped it on Saturday. Then on Sunday, we rested." -- Steve Jobs on the iPad launch

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