On Jan. 14, 2009, the Antelope Valley Press published information about scientists working to learn how to read human minds. Our feature reported that “The story was on ‘60 Minutes.’ ”
“Scientists have developed brain scanning techniques so that — with the aid of pre-programmed computers — they can actually read our minds. The technology that is transforming what once was science fiction into just plain science, is a specialized use of MRI scanning called ‘functional MRI,’ fMRI for short. It makes it possible to see what’s going on inside the brain while people are thinking.”
“60 Minutes’ correspondent Lesley Stahl did an absolutely fascinating report at that time, which showed neuroscientists peering into human brains to read out the physical makeup of their thoughts.
Now, on the Nov. 25, 2019 show, there was an update feature by Lesley Stahl, explaining that Carnegie Mellon University scientists in Pittsburgh have spent more than a decade trying to do mind reading.
In the underground lab, a number of research subjects have come to have their brains and thoughts “read” in the MRI machine.
Neuroscientist Marcel Just said this technology has made it possible for the first time, to see the physical makeup of our thoughts.
When a subject thought of a screwdriver, various areas in the brain showed activity.
The procedure involves dividing the “brain” into thousands of tiny cubes and analyzing the amount of activity in each one. The team is able to identify unique patterns for each object.
Just said, “We’re identifying the thought that’s occurring.”
The scientists are now beyond observing screwdrivers or hammers or igloos, to increasingly complex thoughts. This is basic science, knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Not trying to cure disease, but to understand the fundamental workings of our bodies and in this case, of our minds.
Just’s main questions were whether he could find patterns for abstract ideas. He launched a study asking people to think about forgiveness, gossip, spirituality. Could they be identifiable in the brain the way the screwdriver was?
One difference between the two was areas in the brain, that scientists saw become active, when we think about other people. Circled in blue, those areas lit up bright red when subjects thought about gossip — not so much for spirituality.
In another study, Just tested whether patterns are the same when people think in different languages. They are. And he’s asked acting students to conjure up emotions in the scanner to see if feelings have distinctive activation patterns, too.
He told Stahl each emotion had its own characteristic values. And you could tell which one was which.
Just’s goal is to one day create a dictionary of brain activation, a key to what all different thoughts look like inside our minds.
It may be another decade or two before humans can wear a device that will identify what people are thinking when you’re talking to them at a cocktail party.
But science has many ways of solving highly complex problems and the mind-reading programs may be of great help in diagnosing off-kilter processes going on in our brains.
It’s just another case of using a human brain to study how illuminating brains — with color codes — can explain what’s going on in people’s minds.