For many years, people who could read minds fascinated audiences. They appeared to effortlessly uncover memories, desires, and thoughts from those watching. Now, there’s a worry that scientists who study the brain might be doing something similar. They’re developing technology that can “decode” our thoughts and reveal what’s hidden in our minds.
This idea of decoding thoughts has been in the works for a long time, but it became popular recently because of some important research papers.
In one study, published in Nature, scientists used information from electrodes placed inside people’s brains to recreate a Pink Floyd song that the participants were listening to. In another paper, which was published in a scientific journal called Nature, researchers combined brain scans with computer programs powered by artificial intelligence (AI).
These AI programs are similar to the ones that make tools like ChatGPT work. Using this technology, they were able to turn brain activity into sentences that made sense. The amazing thing was that they did this without the need for surgery or any spoken or heard words. They could even understand stories that people were just thinking about, not speaking out loud or hearing from someone else.
Some sensational headlines have made premature claims that “mind-reading technology is here.” However, the truth is that these methods currently require participants to spend a lot of time inside fMRI machines so that the decoding system can learn from their specific brain data.
In the Nature study, for instance, the research subjects had to spend as much as 16 hours in the machine while they listened to stories. Even after all that time, the subjects could still trick the decoder if they wanted to.
As Jerry Tang, one of the main researchers, put it, these technologies are not yet all-powerful mind readers that can perfectly understand our hidden beliefs. Instead, they act more like a dictionary that links patterns of brain activity with descriptions of what’s going on in our minds. Without a willing and active participant providing brain activity, this “dictionary” isn’t very useful.
Scientists are really curious about how our brains react when we see things. They’re interested because this knowledge could help make smart computer systems. Nowadays, we have some amazing tools like fMRI and EEG that can see what’s happening in our brains when we look at stuff. This has sparked a lot of curiosity about what’s happening in our minds when we see things.
One way they study this is by trying to recreate the pictures or videos that people saw in their experiments. They use computer programs, especially ones called deep neural networks, for this task. They mostly rely on information from fMRI scans to make it happen. However, collecting data from fMRI scans is expensive and not very comfortable.
If you’ve ever been inside an MRI machine, you probably know it’s not a pleasant experience. So, not many people are eager to take part in experiments that involve spending time on one of those machines.
For a long time, people have thought of the mind as something private, like a personal diary or a hidden treasure chest of thoughts that only we can access. This idea led to questions about how we might share these inner thoughts with the outside world, like letting someone read our diary.
Some believed that God could read our deepest thoughts, while Freud believed trained psychoanalysts could understand our minds through things like dream interpretation. Descartes had a different idea, suggesting that our minds are connected to our bodies, and by understanding how our bodies move, we could figure out what’s in our minds.
Modern approaches have continued in this direction. Lie detectors, for example, try to use physical changes in our bodies to uncover what we believe. Jerry Tang, the researcher mentioned earlier, talks about the thought decoder as a tool that connects brain scans to what’s in our minds. Even people who criticize the idea of decoding thoughts still assume that our thoughts are private, which is why the idea of someone else getting access to them is so unsettling.
Throughout history, the concept of the mind as a private realm of thoughts has sparked curiosity about how we might reveal its hidden contents to the outside world.
Various theories, from divine access to psychoanalysis and even physical connections, have been proposed. Modern methods like lie detectors and neural decoding continue to explore this idea. The concern over privacy arises from the belief in the intimate nature of our thoughts, highlighting the ongoing debate about the boundaries of our inner world.