Brain-Scanning Tech May Reveal Mind’s Secrets

Through a study using brain scanning technology called “functional magnetic resonance imaging,” which records mental activity, neuroscientists at the University of California at Berkeley have gained greater insight into how the human brain “sees” objects.

The researchers used fMRI modeling of how subjects responded to various images as the basis for predicting their responses to new images, according to an article published in the peer review publication Nature.

Two people were shown 1,750 different pictures as they were monitored by fMRI. The team then used the subjects’ earlier brain responses to predict what their responses would be to 120 as yet unseen images. The modeling was accurate 72 percent of the time with one subject, and 92 percent of the time with another, according to the Nature report.

The Next Step

What excites the scientific and medical communities is what this study may lead to. The immediate next step, according to the researchers, is to identify what image a person is looking at without having earlier data on that subject’s responses to images.

After that, it could get really interesting. A few years down the road, for instance, this work could help doctors identify the nascent stages of a brain tumor or other diseases.

In the commercial realm, bioneurological-based marketing would hold appeal for retailers and other businesses.

Social scientists, meanwhile, are salivating at the prospect of being able to use science — instead of intuition — to gain insight into what a person is thinking. So are law enforcement officials, for that matter, with some predicting the advent of an infallible lie-detector test on the horizon.

The scariest applications, of course, are in the political realm: power holders using such technology to search out and repress dissidents before they could act against their political regimes.

Those scenarios are, of course, hypothetical, and while intriguing to ponder, they raise more than a few eyebrows.

“I find it very unlikely that an fMRI or any other objective recording device could pick up something as complex as a thought process,” Charles Konia, a psychiatrist and author of The Emotional Plague, which will be available next month, told TechNewsWorld.

“Even something as simple as a work-oriented propensity — that is, are you a mechanic, doctor or librarian? — cannot be determined in this way,” he noted.

10 Years Ahead

Don’t discount the advancements that can be made over the next few years, David Lewis, cofounder of the Mind Lab in London, told TechNewsWorld.

“Over the last 10 years, our knowledge in this area has jumped from the Wright brothers to the Concord. Ten years ago, the equipment we used to measure brain activity had to be pushed around on a trolley. Now it can fit in a handbag.”

Ten years from now, Lewis speculated, advancements could make even some of the more fanciful applications possible.

As for the present, some firms are already exploring the use of neuro-marketing in their business endeavors. The Mind Lab, for instance, recently measured shoppers’ brain activity for a Boston-based retailer to determine their responses to finding bargains while shopping.

Law enforcement agencies are also interested. “They want to measure how hard the brain has to work when it makes a decision,” Lewis said. For instance, while training police to deal with riots, it is useful to know that it takes more brain activity to execute certain specific processes than to take alternative actions. With that knowledge in hand, Lewis said, police can make better training decisions.

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