A team of researchers from Stanford say they've created a system to "eavesdrop" on the brain, allowing them to monitor a person's brain activity while that person moves around (and thinks) in a normal environment, instead of, say, an MRI chamber. Scary! Mind-reading! Inception! BWAMMM.
No, not really: it would be tough to pull the researchers' trick off in cognito. To make it happen, the team removed parts of skull from three patients experiencing frequent, drug-resistant epileptic seizures, then attached a packet of electrodes to their exposed brains. After that, the researchers let the patients experience their stay in the hosptial as they normally would, using the electrodes to record data on the seizures, as well as everything else they did during the hospital stay, like eating or speaking.
Cameras monitored the patients from their rooms, allowing the researchers to determine how the data they got from the electrodes matched up with what the patient was doing at a given time. (Something like: At 3:31 p.m. the patient was eating, according to the video; this is what was happening in their brain at that time.) As part of the study, the researchers also had the three patients go through an experiment: true or false questions flashed by on a computer screen, and the patients answered them. When the questions dealt with math (Does 2 plus 4 make 5?), a region of the brain known to light up when people are calculating, called the intraparietal sulcus, was sparked. That wasn't so surprising.
The more unexpected finding--and this is what makes the researchers' technique different than other brain-monitoring tools--was that it showed how the intraparietal sulcus responds to more abstract calculative thoughts. When the patients, in conversation, used a phrase like "more than" or “bigger than the other one," the brain region also showed more activity. Without being able to monitor a patient during the regular course of their day, a connection like that might not be so easily found.
Does that ring a little of mind-wiretapping? Yeah, a little. But it's not exactly a furtive process, and it could do a lot of good for research, too.