Scientists Connect Three Brains: Towards Telepathy?

By now, the news about a group of scientists at the University of Washington connecting three brains has exploded in every media outlet. It’s amazing, something only seen in movies. Connecting three brains, like a superhuman who can read minds or communicate through the mind. But, how far did these scientists go? What can we expect? And, what’s the future like in a world where brains can talk to each other?

University of Washington Scientists Connect Three Brains

Three Brains and Tetris

The study consisted of fifteen healthy participants who were divided into five different groups. The twist was to solve a simple game of Tetris in which two participants would play the role of Sender and one the role of Receiver. The game consisted of deciding if the senders should move the Tetris block to fill a space in the screen.

This was communicated through what this group called BrainNet, using electroencephalography (EEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to the receiver, who, depending on the of the feedback on its occipital cortex (the cortex related to vision), would make a final decision. All of this was done through brain signals, computers and non-invasive equipment to the participants. It was a simple Yes or No answer that when passed through the equipment to the brain of the receiver, a decision had to be made.

As Linxing Jiang et al. put it, The Receiver integrates the information received from the two Senders and makes a decision using an EEG interface about either turning the block or keeping it in the same position.” Jiang et al. explained that this was the first brain-to-brain interaction to solve a task with multiple people.

A model on how brain-to-brain communication, BrainNet, was done. Photo courtesy of Jiang et al.

This experiment is a baby step, of course, to a future of brain-to-brain communication. Although this seems far and dangerous to some extent, it shows how promising the latest experiments are in furthering the capacities of our brains.

In the present, our brains are already bombarded by stimuli that require all of our attention; this is especially true for technology.  But what if we didn’t have to use all our senses in the brain?  Imagine if your thoughts could control the technologies that surround us. David Eagleman from Stanford University discusses that possibility in his book, The Brain:

“With proper brain-machine interface and wireless technology, there’s no reason you couldn’t control large devices such as a crane or a forklift wirelessly, at a distance, with your thoughts, in the same way that you might absentmindedly dig with a trowel or play a guitar. Your capacity to do this well would be enhanced by sensory feedback, which could be done visually (you watch how the machine moves).”

Brain-to-Brain Communication Is Already Here

Brain to machine is one thing, but brain to brain is another. Many people would think that the possibility is far from today, but what they fail to realize is that their brains are already interconnected with the world and with other people. This naturally comes in the form of Theory of Mind—or TOM—and with the discovery of mirror neurons.

The first, Theory of Mind, was proposed by psychologist David Premack, in which he explained that we are constantly intuiting the mind of others or what others are thinking. As Premack explained in his 1978 paper, A system of inferences of this kind is properly viewed as a theory because such states are not directly observable, and the system can be used to make predictions about the behavior of others.”

The theory of mind is the closest that we have come to reading minds. By visual cues or the behavior of someone, we quickly imply what others are thinking or what they are going to do next. We even communicate with this theory when your best friend is in the same room with you and the person that you both hate enters that room! Although TOM is in a way a brain-to-brain connection, by definition, it is still a theory because we don’t exactly know what the other person is thinking. Therefore, this latest experiment could be quite an advancement into finally a having a deep insight into the thoughts of other people in our brains.

Mirror Neurons

Another phenomenon that proves that brain-to-brain communication isn’t that far off is the presence of mirror neurons. These were discovered in Italy in the 1990s by a group of scientists headed by Giacomo Rizzolatti. These neurons, found in the frontal lobes, showed similar responses when a monkey picked up some food and when the monkey was observing such an action.

These neurons mirror other people’s behavior in our brain and let us create a prediction model about their thoughts and feelings. As the famous neurologist V.S. Ramachandran explains in his 2003 book The Emerging Mind, I suspect that these neurons are at least partly involved in generating our sense of ‘embodied’ self awareness as well as our ‘empathy’ for others.

With mirror neurons, we can evaluate our surroundings and make decisions. These mirror neurons fire themselves to create an image of an action or feeling with a sense of self in such situations—walking in everybody’s shoes. As the experiment proves, those tools to mirror ourselves in other’s shoes and learn to observe their decisions were a big challenge in this brain-to-brain task when the Receiver had to decide if the block was in the right position.

Last Word on Brain-to-Brain Communication

Telepathy, for now, is far from achievable, but, as we have shown, we unconsciously in our brain have mechanisms that emulate such actions—to an extent. The brain-to-brain communication in this experiment is a baby ste, but already shows to be a great prospect.

In the future, problem-solving through brain communication could be possible. The experiment was done with binary choices, which simplified the communication. The next steps would be giving the multi-person, brain-to-brain experiment more complex tasks. Moreover, the complexity of technology, for the time being, is not advanced enough to achieve our wildest dreams of telepathy. Still, this ground-breaking paper shows promise of things we could only imagine decades ago from a sci-fi film.

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