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Spooky action: One brain controlling another

A lot of research papers find their way onto my desk and off it. Some make you think “wow that is incredibly cool”, some make you wonder where people get the funding to study the obvious or arcane. But every once in a while, there’s an article that makes you wonder whether you are in a sci-fi novel and sets the “warning” alarms sounding.

Two Washington University researchers claim to have made a human-brain to human-brain interface. Yes, we’ve connected rat brains, we’ve even connected a rat and human brain. But this — if it is repeatable and observable — is the first time one human brain has physically manipulated another human brain. Creepy, yet awesome.

On the pilot project’s website, Rajesh Rao, an associate professor in computer science and engineering and a member of the university’s neurobiology and behaviour programme, and Andrea Stocco, research assistant professor in the cognition and cognitive dynamics lab at the Institute for Learning and Brain Science, write: “We sought to demonstrate that it is possible to send information extracted from one brain directly to another brain, allowing the first subject to cause a desired response in the second subject through direct brain-to-brain communication. A task was designed such that the two subjects could cooperatively solve the task by transmitting a meaningful signal from one brain to the other.”

This meaningful task was playing computer games, which the two players had to play — one being the brain and one being the hand.

Quoted in, Stocco said: “The internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains. We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain.”

They were filmed performing this feat in both labs, which were on opposite sides of the Washington University campus.

“On Aug 12, Rao sat in his lab wearing a cap with electrodes hooked up to an electroencephalography machine, which reads electrical activity in the brain. Stocco was in his lab across campus wearing a purple swim cap marked with the stimulation site for the transcranial magnetic stimulation coil that was placed directly over his left motor cortex, which controls hand movement,” according to the project’s website.

“The team had a Skype connection set up so the two labs could coordinate, though neither Rao nor Stocco could see the Skype screens. Rao looked at a computer screen and played a simple video game with his mind. When he was supposed to fire a cannon at a target, he imagined moving his right hand (being careful not to actually move his hand), causing a cursor to hit the “fire” button. Almost instantaneously, Stocco, who wore noise-cancelling earbuds and wasn’t looking at a computer screen, involuntarily moved his right index finger to push the space bar on the keyboard in front of him, as if firing the cannon. Stocco compared the feeling of his hand moving involuntarily to that of a nervous tic.”

If you are interested in the hows and whys, read about the experiment here.

The problem with reading is that you’re better informed. The problem with reading sci-fi and fantasy is that you’re better informed about all the things that could go wrong.