We’re pretty confident that most people with a “Psychic Readings” sign hanging in their window are, at best, just very intuitive. At least, we sure hope there isn’t anyone out there capable of getting inside our brains. Well, that hope might be over soon. Thanks to new mind-reading technology, having a headspace of your own might soon be a thing of the past.
This isn’t the first time that scientists have found a way to look inside people’s brains and figure out what they were thinking (or at least make an educated guess). But it is the first time they’ve been able to get three people to communicate with each other using nothing but the power of their own brains. In a groundbreaking new project, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Washington developed a three-player, collaboration-based game where the participants used only their brain waves to communicate.
The game was a lot like Tetris, but with a couple of wrinkles. The three players were kept in separate rooms, with two players (called the “Senders”) hooked into EEG devices to monitor the electrical activity of their brains as they watched blocks falling from the top of the screen to the bottom. The third (the “Receiver”) wore both an EEG and a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) device, and was actually given control of the game — but wasn’t allowed to see the bottom half of the screen. In other words, the Receiver would have no idea if the block was in the right configuration to fit into the empty space.
That’s where the Senders came in. Their screens were flanked by two LED lights, each flashing at a different rate. Their task was to stare at one of those lights to indicate “rotate,” or another to indicate “do not rotate.” The EEG could read which direction the Sender was looking and move a cursor in that direction on the screen, which helped the Senders confirm whether the computer was reading their brain activity correctly.
Once chosen, that command was relayed to the Receiver, not by text or by a light, but by their TMS device, which stimulated their visual cortex and made them see a light inside their eyes known as a phosphene. Once they got the command (seeing a light meant “rotate,” seeing no light meant “don’t rotate”), the Receiver chose whether or not to rotate the block. As you might imagine, they often got it right. But the project didn’t stop there.
Double Checking Your Psychic Work
After the first thought-sending portion of the process, the researchers introduced an intriguing wrinkle: the chance to correct. The Senders could see the entire setup, and so they could instantly judge whether the Receiver had made the right decision. They could then send another message (again, the only options being “rotate” or “don’t rotate”) to give the Receiver a chance to correct.
But for this second round, the researchers weren’t so hands-off. In fact, they would sometimes deliberately alter one of the Senders’ messages in order to create a degree of confusion. The goal was to add a chaotic element that would likely arise in any real-world application of similar technology. At this point, they weren’t testing the tech — they were testing the humans’ ability to predict the correct course of action, even when being fed false information and having a very small set of data. The results? As social animals, humans turned out to be surprisingly good at sussing out the accurate messages from the false ones. If only that worked so well on fake news.