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Can brain scientists read your mind?
This is a grid of numbered electrodes, with many contacts on the brain. Each contact is like a "spying microphone" capturing the activity of hundreds of thousands of cells, says Dr. Josef Parvizi.
October 15th, 2013
11:01 AM ET

Can brain scientists read your mind?

What are you thinking about? You wouldn’t always want the answer to that question available to others, but science may be heading in that direction.

For now, researchers are far from being able to tap into your thoughts. But a new study shows how, just by looking at brain activity, it may be possible to see whether or not you're thinking about numbers.

"The patient doesn’t need to talk to you. They can think about numbers and you can see that red mark (corresponding with activity in a particular brain region) go up," said Dr. Josef Parvizi, associate professor of neurology at the Stanford University Medical Center and senior author of the study. The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Take note, this study was done on only three people with uncontrolled seizures - that's a tiny sliver of humanity. But Parvizi said most studies on patients with intracranial electrodes only involve two to five participants, since recruitment is so difficult.

These patients had electrodes implanted in their brains to locate the source of their seizures. Surgeons perform this procedure to isolate or remove the area where seizures begin.

The researchers used these electrodes that had been implanted for locating seizures to investigate brain activity in relation to thinking about numbers, particularly in the parietal lobe. In previous studies, this brain area has been shown to be important to a person's ability to do numerical calculations.

In one part of the experiment, patients looked at a computer screen while lying down and responded to prompts regarding the accuracy of statements. They would press "one" if the sentence or mathematical equation were correct, "two" if incorrect.

Each time a patient would perform a calculation, a group of neurons in the parietal lobe - specifically a region called the intraparietal sulcus - was very active, Parvizi said.

In another part of this study, researchers used a computer to trace the activity of the same group of neurons in the patients in an unconstrained setting. They recorded conversations between patients and experimenters, and juxtaposed the brain activity data to show the correlations between spiking activity in the math-related brain region and quantitative statements that patients made.

When patients were seeing, thinking or talking without a script, it seemed that the natural activation in the parietal lobe tended to occur right before they said something quantitative, Parvizi said. It didn't happen every time, of course; more research would be needed to verify these findings.

Oxford University researcher Roi Cohen Kadosh called this “an innovative study that shows a nice relationship between neuronal activity during experimental setting and everyday situations.” But he pointed out that it is unclear whether the same results would be seen in healthy people, whose brains had not experienced seizures. Other studies have found multiple brain areas related to numerical understanding.

The bottom line: Just by looking at the data about brain activity, it may be possible to know when a person was thinking about numbers.

This is much simpler than trying to decode more specific thoughts from brain activity patterns. There's no way for scientists to know if you are daydreaming about hiking with your romantic partner, worrying about finishing a big project or making a grocery list.

"We are light years behind in doing such a thing. There is absolutely no way for us to kind of record what exactly the patient is thinking because that needs a lot of complicated decoding," Parvizi said.

Instead, this study presents a method of studying brain activity in order to get a general sense of what a person is experiencing through thoughts.

"Of course, it's just a matter of time (before) you're going to be able to decode brain activity in very complex conditions, such as thinking," Parvizi said.

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soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Jess

    Shows up the inadequacies of the Bill of Rights, doesn't it?

    October 15, 2013 at 16:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. cpc65@cox.net

    Didn't Dr. Venkman conduct a study on this in Ghostbusters?

    October 15, 2013 at 17:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Is it a star???...

      It IS..a star.

      October 15, 2013 at 23:04 | Report abuse |
  3. more blanket

    I believe Egon was conducting ESP experimentation.

    October 15, 2013 at 22:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ugh...Egon...

      the sponge has migrated about a foot and a half.

      October 15, 2013 at 23:05 | Report abuse |
  4. cpc65@cox.net

    No, it was Doctor Venkman at the beginning of the movie where he was flirting with blonde girl and kept zapping the guy for guessing wrong.

    October 15, 2013 at 22:34 | Report abuse | Reply
    • The effect?! I'll tell you what the effect is, it's pi**ing me off!!

      Then I guess my theory is correct!!

      October 15, 2013 at 23:07 | Report abuse |
  5. lela

    It is not pretty if you have the capability to read people's minds, not pretty at all.

    October 16, 2013 at 01:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Pablo

    I can read the mind of the next person to comment on this article. It is: "I have an irresistible urge to post a silly or irrelevant comment to this article".

    October 16, 2013 at 05:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jeannette DeSimone

    How difficult would it be for a computer to be able to have the ability to reason and think given the complexities of the human brain? How close do you think we are to being able to being able to have that capability?

    October 18, 2013 at 23:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Jane SMith

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    October 19, 2013 at 13:31 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.