Can a computer recreate what you're seeing?

Reading Minds: Real Science Beats Sci-Fi

Scientists have long challenged the brain's reputation as a black box, especially over the past 150 years. Since scientists discovered that brain activity could be measured by blood flow in the 1890s, a wave of studies have contributed to our knowledge of localizing activity, or tying certain activities and emotions to areas of the brain [source: Roy & Sherrington].

But it takes a lot of work to develop the high-tech computers capable of interpreting what the brain sees.

Researchers have looked at how neurons work in nonhuman mammals, including rodents and primates [source: Wagner]. Computer modeling and engineering have also helped scientists develop ways to predict trends and translate the brain's reactions into usable data.

Previous studies with fMRI have shown how the brain's nerve cells react to seeing objects and people [source: Haxby et al.]. Other experiments have examined how the organs react to colored stimuli and even visualized parts of speech, including nouns and verbs [sources: Bohannon, Mitchell et al.].

Other "mind-reading" computers rely on electroencephalogram (EEG) technology, where electrodes attached to a person's scalp can pick up faint activity inside the brain. In some cases, EEG experiments with computers have found ways to let people control a computer with their brain alone [source: O'Brien & Baime]. Patients with health conditions that make speaking or moving difficult could benefit from these developments.

Then, there's the type of computers programmed to pick up on humans' social cues. In a general sense, these robots recreate what a person might be seeing or thinking by analyzing his body language or voice [source: MIT].

With time, computers' ability to recreate the inner workings of the human mind might become more refined. But overall, your 3-pound (1.3-kilogram) organ largely remains one of nature's greatest mysteries.

Head over to the next page for more on the brain-computer pairing.

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  • Bohannon, John. "A New Angle on Mind Reading." ScienceNOW. April 25, 2005. (Oct. 13, 2011)
  • Chudler, Eric. "The Hows, Whats and Whos of Neuroscience. " Neuroscience for Kids. (Oct. 22, 2011)
  • Haxby, James, Gobbini, M., Furey, Maura, Ishai, Alumit, Schouten, Jennifer, & Pietrini, Pietro. "Distributed and Overlapping Representations of Faces and Objects in Ventral Temporal Cortex." Science. Vol. 293, no. 5539. 2001. (Oct. 12, 2011)
  • Nishimoto, Shinji, Vu, An, Naselaris, Thomas, Benjamini, Yuval, Yu, Bin, & Gallant, Jack. "Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies." Current Biology. Vol. 21, no. 19. 2011. (Oct. 8, 2011)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Personal Robots Group: Leonardo." MIT Media Lab. (Oct. 13, 2011)
  • MedlinePlus. "EEG." U.S. National Library of Medicine. Oct. 19, 2011. (Oct. 22, 2011)
  • Mitchell, Tom, Shinkareva, Svetlana, Carlson, Andrew, Chang, Kai-Min, Malave, Vicente, Mason, Robert, & Just, Marcel. "Predicting Human Brain Activity Associated with the Meanings of Nouns." Science. Vol. 320, no. 1191. 2008. (Oct. 13, 2011)
  • O'Brien, Miles & Baime, Jon. "Mind Reading Computer System May Help People with Locked-in Syndrome." Oct. 17, 2011. (Oct. 18, 2011)
  • Randerson, James. "Scary or Sensational? A Machine that can Look into the Mind." The Guardian. March 5, 2008. (Oct. 12, 2011)
  • Roy, C.S. & Sherrington, C.S. "On the Regulation of the Blood-supply of the Brain." Journal of Physiology. Vol. 11, no. 1-2. 1890. (Oct. 28, 2011).
  • Wagner, Holly. "MRI Technique Lets Researchers Directly Compare Similarities, Differences Between Monkey and Human Brain." Ohio State Research Communications. Oct. 17, 2002. (Oct. 12, 2011)

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