Recently I have posted Chapter 6 which is a science fiction story. In Chapter 6 we meet an alien species. Some of these folks are able to perform a “mind bridge” with other conscious animals, including humans. In the story this is mentioned to be a form of magic (you’ll have to read the story to know what it is exactly).
The ability to explore someone’s mind, read information from it and write information in it is often mentioned in science fiction. But in reality, how close is our technology to perform these sorts of tricks?
Reading information from the brain:
Reality: In 2008, by scanning subjects’ brain with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Miyawaki and collaborators were able to extract images that those subjects were shown. The first row in the below image is what they showed to people, the following rows are what they have scanned and the final row is the result (the average of the scans).
I want to say “mind blowing” but I’d like to avoid the pun 🙂 This study dates back in 2008, so maybe more has been done later that I haven’t heard of.
Science Fiction: In science fiction, the brain’s “learning” capacity is often compared with recording devices such as video cameras. Images and sounds are extracted in a way that is very similar to extracting media files from a computer. Among many examples one may cite Minority Report where the psychics are sedated and their dreams are recorded.
Another example is from a series I have recently watched: Black Mirror. It’s remarkably intelligent and I highly recommend it. One of the episodes of the first season takes place in an alternate reality where people have an implant on the back of their ears, called the “grain”. It records their memories exactly like a video camera. Later they can watch those memories themselves or show to others.
What about writing information in the brain?
Reality: To the best of my knowledge this is impossible. Because knowledge is not some data on a disk. It is the whole structure of the brain. Every time we learn something a network of hundreds of billions of neurons restructure themselves. To date, precise manipulation of such a complex network is not possible. Therefore sorry, you’ll have to train if you want to learn kung fu 🙂
There’s this study from MIT: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jul/25/false-memory-implanted-mouse-brain
where they have planted false memories into a mouse’s brain. But the mouse’s brain cells (those in the hippocampus) are transgenic so they can be stimulated at will by flashing a blue light 🙂
The experiment itself is ingenious though. They put the mouse in a new room and let the poor creature explore it. Since he learns new stuff, new connections are made in his brain. Then they put him in another room where they stimulate these newly formed connections artificially while giving the mouse a small electric shock that he dislikes immensely. At this point Mickey associates the bad experience of the electric shock with the memories of when he explored the 1st room and when they put him back in the first room he panics.
Science Fiction: But of course in science fiction, downloading information directly in to the brain is very useful in terms of scenario because it contributes to the “character arc”. Apart from the all-time famous Matrix, the “Dollhouse” series is a good example for that. With the technology speculated in this series not only skills but also false memories can be downloaded into the brain.
I personally think that any technology that messes with your brain is ultimately creepy. Especially those that alter your thoughts without your consent (anyone remember the Thought Maker from Star Trek?)
Then again, if there was a technology that would allow us to gain skills overnight by simply downloading information into our brains, I cannot help but wonder or dream about everything I would download 😀