Thursday, April 28, 2005

Brain Reading

There was a troubling BBC news story recently: " Brain scan 'sees hidden thoughts'." The subtitle reads "Scientists say they can read a person's unconscious thoughts using a simple brain scan."

The actual results are a bit less sensational, but the scientists' reactions deserve a headline in themselves.

The news story is based on two studies in Nature Neuroscience, one by Dr. Frank Tong and Dr. Yukiyasu Kamitani, the other by Dr Geraint Rees and Dr John-Dylan Haynes. Both studies used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which finds the brain's active regions as shown by blood flow. Tong & Kamitani were able to discriminate the orientation of a visual image (a series of parallel bars) a research subject was thinking about. Rees & Haynes were able to tell the orientation of a visual image whose duration was too short to register in the consciousness of the subject (that is, a subliminal image).

The responses of scientists the news story records reflect problems with our society's view of the world. Dr. Burgess's comments are downright alarming:

"It could potentially be used to find out people's latent attitudes and beliefs that they are not aware of.

"You could use it to detect people's prejudices, intuition and things that are hidden and influence our behaviour."

He said it might be possible to dip into people's repressed memories or even see people's hidden fears and phobias.

"That's a long way off, but it is exciting."

(Sure: exciting like being tied to a railroad tie with a train rapidly approaching!)

So, you could use a machine to detect what Orwell called "thoughtcrime"? That's frightening enough (assuming it's even possible), but this oblivious scientist tops himself by gushing enthusiastically about achieving such menacing power over nature. As C.S. Lewis wrote: "what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument." And then scientists wonder why people don't trust them about embryonic stem-cell research and vaccines!

Dr Rees said: "This is the first basic step to reading somebody's mind. If our approach could be expanded upon, it might be possible to predict what someone was thinking or seeing from their brain activity alone."

It could be that Rees's statement is taken out of context, but at face value it equates "thinking" and "seeing." There is a big difference between the two. Seeing is a primarily sensory, as is recalling a sensory image (or phantasm), so it would make sense that the brain would be deeply involved, and so there should be detectable indications of what is being seen. In contrast, thinking involves universals, which cannot be corporeal; thus it would seem that thinking is largely a "private" happening, i.e., one that cannot be "read" empirically. Seeing primarily involves the brain, but thinking primarily involves the incorporeal mind. Thus these researchers are engaged not in mind reading, but rather in "brain reading."

As might be expected, the "peer-written summary (by Geoffrey Boynton) of the two results is more measured in its appraisal of the implications of the research:

These two studies have interesting implications about the role of V1 [the visual cortex] in consciousness. Being just two synapses away from the eye, V1 is usually considered an early visual area. Early visual areas tend to represent properties of the physical stimulus, whereas visual areas later in the processing stream seem to hold our conscious percept, or our brain's interpretation of the stimulus. The finding by Haynes and Rees is consistent with this idea, and supports the theory that we are not consciously aware of all of the processing going on in V1.

Even the New York Times's article is more measured than the Beeb's article. Perhaps the BBC is not content to leave Tony Blair alone to "sex up" the news.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, ch 3.

John-Dylan Haynes and Geraint Rees, "Predicting the orientation of invisible stimuli from activity in human primary visual cortex," Nature Neuroscience 8, 686–691 (2005).

Yukiyasu Kamitani and Frank Tong, "Decoding the visual and subjective contents of the human brain," Nature Neuroscience 8, 679–685 (2005).

Geoffrey M. Boynton, "Imaging orientation selectivity: decoding conscious perception in V1," Nature Neuroscience 8, 541-542 (2005).

Anthony Rizzi, The Science Before Science (Baton Rouge, LA: IAP Press, 2004).


One Man's Struggle To Take It Easy said...

OK, I have to ask is this for real? Please if it is don't be offended I just can't help but ask. The blog, the posts, etc. Thanks!

Lawrence Gage said...

You're making a pun, right?

Yes, it is "real"—in both senses. I'm not offended, but I do wonder what makes you ask that question.


abefroeman said...


I am sorry after reading your posts, and reading your profile description, it made me wonder. I just find your posts deep, bizzare, controversial, yet intriging. Finally, you have alot of hits and yet no one comments?

A Traveller said...

Being a thorough person, I decided to begin reading this blog from the beginning and got to your second entry before I felt obliged to make an observation. In that entry you mention that you found it ironic that the political party that accepts the theory of evolutionary Darwinism is the party that rejects social Darwinism(Democrats) and vice versa. I fail to see the irony. Accepting the veracity of something is wholly unrelated to propagating it. I understand that rape exists, but I don't pratice it myself. Evolution is a scientific theory, not a personal philosophy.

I have now read a little bit further into your posts and I must say, for a scientist, you seem extraordinarily nervous and fearful about exploring and understanding things. This latest entry, for example; I can't imagine a curious mind being repelled by the notion of a scientific method for reading minds! Where is your sense of wonder and love of discovery? Does it not occur to you, excite you, that the scope of man's consciousness, his curiosity, his intruments, are all just as much a part of nature as anything else? Why should you and C.S. Lewis get to determine where to draw the line on my desire to understand and incorporate the full spectrum of things? What agenda, what fear, inspires you to limit everyone around you? You seem so bright, yet, alas, so brittle. Moving on...

Lawrence Gage said...

Dear Traveller,

Thanks for your post!

Hope you found what you were looking for about Ramtha. On the same "You are God" theme you might find this post of interest.

Of course the whole idea of helping out the inevitable is a stupidity. Nevertheless, if blind chance rules the universe as Darwin would have us believe, then justice is the advantage of the strong, and only personal whim (in face of the "law of nature") keeps a man from advocating social Darwinism. As Dostoyevsky said, if there is no God then anything is permissible.

Ever see Hitchcock's Rope? It's based loosely on the Leopold and Loeb case. In the film two young men take their prof's philosophy seriously and decided to commit murder just to see what it's like. Perhaps you've considered such an act yourself. Or maybe (since you mention it) rape is more to your taste....

Funny you should say call me "brittle." I've been making a point about liberal name-calling actually applying more to the speaker than to the person ostensibly spoken about. You provide a vivid illustration.

Again, thank you for your post.