Scientists Send Messages Directly From One Brain To Another

But the cumbersome experimental setup won’t replace Facebook's Messenger app anytime soon.
Carles Grau et al., PLOS One, 2014. CC BY 2.5

So a team of neuroscientists sent a message from the brain of one person in India, to the brains of three people in France, using brainwave-reading equipment and the Internet. Yes, really.

The process is slow and cumbersome. It also doesn’t make use of any bleeding-edge technology. Instead, it puts together neurorobotics software and hardware that have been developed by several labs in recent years. We’re not predicting that this will have practical applications, or society-changing implications, any time soon. Still, it’s pretty amusing that somebody did this, and we’re here to give you the step-by-step instructions on how.

To wit:

  1. The emitter—we’re using the vocab and italics from the original paper because they are awesome—wears an EEG cap on her scalp that records the electrical activity in her brain. The cap communicates wirelessly with a laptop that shows, on its screen, a white circle on a black background.

  2. The emitter translates the message she wants to send into an obscure five-bit binary system called Bacon’s cipher, which is more compact than the binary code that computers use.

  3. The emitter now has to enter that binary string into the laptop using her thoughts. She does this by using her thoughts to move the white circle on-screen to different corners of the screen. (Upper right corner for “1,” bottom right corner for “0.”) This part of the process takes advantage of technology that several labs have developed, to allow people with paralysis to control computer cursors or robot arms.

  4. The emitter‘s binary message gets sent over the Internet, yay.

  5. The receivers sit inside a transcranial magnetic stimulation machine that’s able to send electromagnetic pulses through people’s skulls. The pulses make the receivers see flashes of light in their peripheral vision that aren’t actually there. In addition, the machine has a robotic arm that’s able to aim at different places on the receivers‘ skulls. The results are phantom flashes (called phosphenes) that seem to show up in different positions in the air, which is not spooky at all, no.

  6. As soon as the receivers‘ machine gets the emitter‘s binary message over the Internet, the machine gets to work. It moves its robotic arm around, sending phosphenes to the receivers at different positions on their skulls. Flashes appearing in one position correspond to 1s in the emitter‘s message, while flashes appearing in another position correspond to 0s.

  7. We don’t know how the receivers keep track of all that flashing. Perhaps they take notes using a pen and paper.

Whew, that’s a lot of work to give your friends a holler. The research team, including neuroscientists and engineers from universities and startups in Europe and the U.S., understandably sent only two messages in this manner: “hola” and “ciao.” Imagine trying to send “bonjour” or “good morning.”

The team published its work in August in the journal PLOS One. It is there you can find this super-amazing graphic of the experimental setup: