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Reading minds with a brain scanner — it’s happening: Mary Lou Jepsen at TED2013

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Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

“Let’s talk about what’s in our heads and how to get it out,” says Mary Lou Jepsen as she begins her talk at TED2013.

Jepsen, a display engineer, recently had brain surgery. Afterward she faced a stigma: “Are you still smart? If not, can you make yourself smart again?” Well, her surgery gave her a chance to experiment in an extraordinary way. Because of nature of the surgery, she had to decide what amounts of over a dozen chemicals to take to stay alive, and to thrive.

As an experimentalist, she was amazed by how tiny changes in dose changed her sense of self, her thinking, and her behavior. Over several years she tried many combinations. For a while she took a combination typical of a male in his early 20s, and “I was angry all the time, I thought about sex constantly, and I thought I was the smartest person in the world.” That gave new appreciation of men and what they might go through.

For her, though, the tuning was really about getting herself back. In particular, getting her idea flow back. As a visual thinker, she uses images in her head for rapid prototyping. There is a thought that ideas are images and images are ideas. That’s disputed, but for her images are central.

It worked, and now she has lots of them. And that brings her to the next bottleneck, and one she thinks she can solve: how to get those images out of her head and onto the screen. Directly. “Can you imagine,” she asks, “a movie director using her imagination alone to direct the world in front of her?”

Amazingly, the biggest roadblock to that is just increasing the resolution of brain-scan systems. Just this week, the White House announced support of a new project to do exactly this. It’s aimed at treating disease, but will have an impact in many, many areas, including this kind of thought reading. “Could you imagine,” she asks, “if we could communicate directly with our thoughts? What would we be capable of? And how will we deal with that?”

TED2013_0044800_D41_7396How is this possible? Jepsen shows two recent experiments.

  • One group used fMRI to scan an individual looking at a picture. Then they scanned the same same individual imagining the picture. Those images are almost identical. That means that imagining an image has the same brain pattern as seeing it.
  • Another group at the University of California, Berkeley has been able to decode a brain-wave into a recognizable shape. They showed people in a brain scanner a set of YouTube videos and scanned them to build a library. Then they were shown a new video. After scanning their brains, the computer could decode the image. The resolution is bad, but it’s clearly right, and it’s stunning. (Read about it here.)

So, as Jepsen says, they just need to up the resolution. All they need is a thousand-fold increase. How do they get that? Traditionally, better resolution comes from bigger magnets in the MRI machine. Jepsen, however, is looking at techniques to arrange the magnets more cleverly. If successful, they could build a device to do an instant read-out 1000x times better than today. “That’s the dream.”

And Jepsen says it’s not a matter of if this happens. “It’s coming. We’re going to be able to dump our ideas directly to digital media.” It might take 5 or 15 years, but it’s coming. That, of course, leads to very real concerns about privacy.

In the near term, this will be a personal tool — someone driving by your house won’t be able to scan your brain and download your thoughts. It will be used for personal enhancement, or to possibly treat Alzheimers and related diseases.

But Jepsen emphasizes, if we want to understand ourselves better, we need to do this.  And if we do that, “We need to learn how to take this step together.”