Sending your thoughts directly into someone else’s brain may seem like the stuff of science fiction. But this capability could be closer to reality than we think, yes….through brainwaves.
A team from the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon University has developed a system, called BrainNet, which allows three people to communicate with one another using only their thoughts.
Previous research has demonstrated that two people can communicate via brainwaves to play a video game using what’s known as a brain-brain interface—technology that can both extract and deliver information to and from brains.
In the latest study, the team took this idea, and added an extra person. Their system is described in a paper published on the pre-print server arXiv.
“In 2013, we demonstrated the first brain-to-brain interface for direct communication and collaboration between two human brains,” Rajesh Rao, an author of the study from the University of Washington, told Newsweek .
“The question that remained unanswered was whether one could create a ‘social network’ of more than two brains collaborating to solve task that none of the individual brains could. BrainNet is the first proof-of-concept demonstration of this idea.”
In the experiments, two participants (the senders) were fitted with electrodes on the scalp to detect and record their own brainwaves—patterns of electrical activity in the brain—using a method known as electroencephalography, or EEG.
The third participant (the receiver) was fitted with electrodes that enabled the participant to receive and read brain waves from the two senders via a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS.
The trio was asked to collaborate using brain-to-brain interactions to solve a task that each of them individually would not be able to complete.
The task involved a simplified Tetris-style game in which the players had to decide whether or not to rotate a shape by 180 degrees in order to correctly fill a gap in a line at the bottom of the computer screen.
All the participants watched the game, although the receiver was in charge of executing the action. The catch was that the receiver was not able to see the bottom half of the screen so had to rely on information sent by the two senders using their minds in order to play.
“The system allows the senders to observe the complete game screen and decide whether the piece needs to be rotated,” Rao said. “Each sender then conveys using EEG a decision to the receiver. This decision is delivered via magnetic stimulation to the receiver’s visual cortex when the decision is ‘rotate,’ causing [the receiver] to experience a flash of light called a phosphene.”
“Based on the information received from the two senders, the receiver acts to rotate the piece or not using EEG,” he said. “The updated game screen is then displayed to the senders for a second (final) round of decision making, allow the users to potentially correct a mistake made in the first round.”
The paper presents the first successful demonstration of a “multi-person noninvasive direct brain-to-brain interaction for solving a task,” according to the researchers, who note that there was no reason BrainNet could not be expanded to include as many people as desired.
They argued that such a technology could have significant implications.
“Brain-to-brain interfaces have the potential to transform the way humans communicate and collaborate with each other,” Rao said.
“They also have the potential to shed new light on how the human brain works and help restore function in people with neurological conditions.”
“Current brain-to-brain interfaces are extremely limited in the amount of information transmitted between brains, preventing practical applications,” he said.
“However, with sufficient advances in brain recording and stimulation technologies, one could imagine ‘social networks’ of connected brains in the future producing innovative and creative solutions to humanity’s most important scientific and societal problems, all within a socially and ethically responsible framework.”
Ralf Schmaelzle, from the Neuroscience of Message’s Lab at Michigan State University, who was not involved in the study, described the latest work as “very interesting” and said it was “exciting” to see the domains of social interaction and neuroscience, which have historically been rather separated, grow together more and more.
“This is really a creative study that combines ideas and methods from different fields to create something new,” Schmaelzle told
Traditionally, many BCI applications have been very medical, for example, helping people with ALS who lose control of their muscle strength to use their brainwaves to select letters in order to communicate with other people.
But it was always only one person who wore the EEG and communicated through it.
“Here we see a distinctly more ‘social’ application, namely that we have multiple BCIs plugged together into a ‘social network’ of a collaborative team of people who don’t see each other,” he said.
“This is really an interesting development that carries BCI to the next level—that of social networks between brains.”
The most likely applications will still be in the medical domain or to advance science, although we may soon see the technology being used in virtual reality environments, for example, Schmaelzle speculates.
“This really establishes a new channel to communicate through,” he said.
“To be clear, however, the channel capacity of this new communication channel is very low—you cannot have a normal conversation through it yet. All that is possible right now is sending binary information, such as whether you want to turn a Tetris-block left or right.
But once the “brain-reading” can be improved, and the “brain-talking” can become more nuanced, this could possibly lead to new ways of silent information sharing between different minds. But this is science fiction for now.”