Mind Games

This is a guest post by Cory Derringer. He is a senior at the University of Northern Iowa and a member of the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI).

I ran across this article at reddit.com/r/psychology. I thought it would be cool to share something really awesome involving computer science and neuroscience.

Neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have used electrode implants in epilepsy patients to give those individuals conscious control over the firing of some single neurons. The process is too complicated to explain in one or two hundred words (and honestly, I don’t understand it), but the researchers were able to link the electrodes to software, giving patients the ability to move a cursor or even play a simple computer game using only their brains.

And it gets even more interesting than that!

The team arranged for a situation in which two concepts competed for dominance in the mind of the patient. “We had patients sit in front of a blank screen and asked them to think of one of the target images,” [Caltech post-doc fellow Moran Cerf] explains. As they thought of the image, and the related neuron fired, “we made the image appear on the screen,” he says. That image is the “target.” Then one of the other three images is introduced, to serve as the “distractor.”

“The patient starts with a 50/50 image, a hybrid, representing the ‘marriage’ of the two images,” Cerf says, and then has to make the target image fade in—just using his or her mind—and the distractor fade out…“The subjects quickly got the hang of the task, and they were successful in around 70 percent of trials.”

[The original press release can be found here. Ed.]

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Michael

    Mental control of computers is an awesome subject. One which is working quite well already has a computer with a panel of flashing controls. You look at the control you want, the sensor (a skullcap, not an implant) registers higher than normal brain activity every time it flashes and quickly deduces which control you’re focussing on. Thus you press buttons with your mind.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593675787 Glenn Davey

    I can’t wait until computers can respond at the speed of minds rather than at the speed of mouse clicks and typed commands. It will revolutionize many forms of work (not to mention gaming! Let’s see whose BRAIN is better at fraggin n00bs!!)

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  • TheBlackCat

    This is really cool.  However, it is not of just academic interest.  If we want, for example, to allow parapalegics or quadrapalegics to be able to control their limbs using muscle electrodes connected to their brains, they need to be able to control the firing of a relatively small number of neurons (electrode arrays usually have 100 or so electrodes, which isn’t that much for 5-degree-of-freedom arm or leg, not to mention a hand).  The same is true for electrodes to control prosthetic arms or legs for amputees.  So determining whether people can do this and how well they can do it is of critical importance.   And it is really hard to find subjects for this sort of study, they pretty much have to be either epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease patients since the skull has to be opened for something other than the experiment.


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