Surprised to just learn this, given that headlines were initially made in August 2013 on this bit of awesomeness: scientists have hooked up people’s brains to the internet and successfully conveyed direct brain-to-brain communication signals.
The process sounds rather simple, actually. A “sender’s” brain is hooked up to electroencephalography (EEG) sensors and a “receiver’s” brain is hooked up to a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) device. Both are non-invasive (i.e., requiring no implants in the brain, just some sensors on the scalp). The sender’s EEG signal is transmitted via the internet to the receiver’s TMS device.
In an experiment conducted at the University of Washington, senders were placed in front of a video game where they needed to fire a cannon to defend a city. But they had no control. They would think “fire,” and this signal was transmitted via the internet to the receivers located about a half mile away on campus. The receiver would near-instantaneously “sense” the fire signal and press the fire button.
The receivers conveyed that the process felt completely involuntary (…lots could be unpacked here on free will, the possible illusion of self-control, or lack thereof). Andrea Stocco, Research Assistant Professor of Psychology, commented about receiving the brain-to-brain communication:
My arm wanted to move by [itself]. It was actually moving. I saw it, like, lifting up and pressing the button…The feeling was that I was quite literally lending parts of my brain to somebody else.
Crazy. Chantel Pratt, Assistant Professor of Psychology and collaborator on the research project, commented in an interview with CNET that brain-to-brain transfers of “data” could help “especially when knowledge cannot be easily translatable into words.”
The implications of this statement are profound. Throughout the course of human evolution, our knowledge has not only depended on, but in many ways has been constrained by, our ability to develop and utilize language. The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of language affects the way we conceptualize our world. But what happens if and when our brains can communicate beyond the linguistic realm?
Our world view would be shattered open. We would share in the ineffable.
Where language fails us, for example in describing mystical states, we are left babbling, grasping for meaning to convey to others. We can “know” many things internally; big, ineffable, mind stuff that as of yet is completely impossible to convey with certainty to others. We try as we may, but a large portion of our human experience is beyond words and is thus solely our own.
The possibility of conveying the “unspeakable” to others via direct brain-to-brain communication is incredible, and the implications for science and spirituality would be powerful. Brain space may be our next frontier.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This particular experiment was constrained to motor control signals. There is lots of work to be done before we’re sharing our brains like open books via the internet, but, wow, it’s seemingly within grasp. What an amazing (and risky) proposition. The research, led by Rajesh Rao, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, was recently published in PLOS One.