In April last year (2018) a disturbing story hit the media through the South China Morning Post. This story described how electrodes in the helmets of workers were being used to gather brainwave information, and could then be used to remove inattentive (sleepy, angry, or troubled) individuals who might be a health and safety risk. This approach was also apparently helping company profits.
We all know that the EEG charts produced from this external, scalp-gathered information represent brainwave patterns that can indicate states of mind. Beta is the ideal pattern for an attentive worker: about 14 or more tiny shifts (oscillations) in electrical voltage per second that spread like ripples across living brain tissue. Alpha is a bit slower and more in line with a relaxed while attentive mindset. The much slower theta waves indicate a detached, sleepy state of mind: around 4 to 7 cycles per second (see my book for more details).
Another news article at the time disputed whether such a strategy to determine brain state for a population of workers was even possible. Yet despite such disagreement, the story did the rounds, presumably on the grounds that it fed the West's agenda that China places little value on either privacy or worker rights. However, a year later it was with surprise that I discovered 'advancement' in this technology was coming out of the USA, with attractive headband-like contraptions used in schools to monitor American children. Actually, a long-term attempt to use these in a school in China caused such an uproar that the trial was discontinued there.
But it is one thing to get noise-ridden charts, crippled by poor electrode contact and impacted by natural muscle contractions such as blinking. These charts may, in the best of circumstances, paint a picture of attentiveness. It is quite another matter to determine exactly what is going on inside someone's head. The ability to read another person's thoughts accurately or see into their memories or dreams is still a fairy-story, surely?
The first challenge in such a steep climb must be the creation of a map; one that translates brain activity into meaningful information. Intriguingly, in 2016 a research team published that they had achieved just such a map. They had decoded the language lexicon for the brain. Surprisingly, they found that language-based concepts are spread across the brain in a kind of tile-like, repeated, representation. The team even brought out a brain map for this dictionary, although it is important to add that the placement of such information in anyone's brain is specific to that individual, so personal calibration is necessary, but it is achievable.
What about emotions? Can these too, be reliably accessed from the outside? If so, then surely the place to look would be the well-known amygdala - or more accurately the pair of these structures found deep within in the brain tissue and thought to be the seat of feelings (emotion). It turns out though, that damage to these structures does not remove the ability to feel emotion.
Rather than being found within specialised regions governing positive or negative feelings, emotion has now been described as a kind of neural code representing our spectrum of subjective feelings, which is dispersed across regions of the brain, rather like the language map noted above. So, our emotional feelings seem to be another kind of coded language for the brain.
Based on activity patterns in brain regions gleamed from fMRI images, the algorithms developed in this kind of research are able to reveal considerable detail about our thoughts. Although surely recreating the internal pictures that we see in our mind, from brain activity as we think or remember, is a step too far? Yet this too, appears to be well on its way as a technique to spy on the mind. You can see what was possible a few years ago by viewing this short video clip; and such technological advancement doesn't stand still.
Perhaps you are thinking that such 'mind reading' is a long way off from general use, and for now this is true. However, in an earlier post brain-computer interface technology was discussed and we saw how this is coming along in leaps and bounds. It will not always be necessary to place a person in a brain-imaging machine (fMRI) or cover their scalp with electrodes. Then, it will be the algorithms developed from the mapping we have discussed that will unlock a new kind of surveillance. Perhaps it will be beneficial, helping us to catch criminals, even to determine when people are planning crimes before they occur, and to heal broken minds. Then again, it all comes down to who is in charge of the technology and the payoff that they expect.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb