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Playing Mind Games, for Science

Story by
Nancy Joseph

It may not be as popular as Minecraft, but a computer game designed by UW researchers last year attracted plenty of attention. The “game” was actually an experiment that tested whether two people can communicate without language, from locations a mile apart, using a direct brain-to-brain connection. It turns out they can, as demonstrated in a video that has been viewed on YouTube more than a million times.

Test subject wearing an EEG cap.

An EEG machine records a research subject's electrical brain activity as he answers yes-no questions.

The experiment was designed by UW psychology professors Andrea Stocco and Chantel Prat, both researchers at the UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS), and Rajesh Rao, professor of computer science and engineering. For the twenty questions-style game, one player wore an electroencephalography (EEG) cap that recorded his electrical brain activity as he answered yes-no questions about an object. The second player, fitted with a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) device, received a signal in her brain — a flash of light for a “yes” answer — that allowed her to recognize the first player’s answers. “This is the most complex brain-to-brain experiment, I think, that’s been done to date in humans,” Stocco noted at the time.

EEG and TMS technology have been around for decades, but what’s noteworthy is using them together to facilitate communication.  “Essentially we merged these two well-established puzzle pieces and asked, ‘What can we do with these that will actually be useful?’” says Prat.

...we are...taking signals from the brain and, with minimal translation, putting them into another person's brain.

Prat and Stocco point out that many technological advances in recorded history — the telegraph, the telephone, the internet — are centered around communication. Brain-to-brain communication, they say,  has the potential to be the biggest leap of all.  “Evolution has spent a colossal amount of time to find ways for us and other animals to take information out of our brains and communicate it to other animals in the form of behavior, speech, and so on,” Stocco says. “But it requires translation. We can only communicate part of whatever our brain processes. What we are doing [in our research] is kind of reversing the process a step at a time by opening up this box and taking signals from the brain and, with minimal translation, putting them into another person's brain.”

In a game captured on video, one player wears an EEG cap that records his electrical brain activity while a second player, fitted with a TMS device (above), receives a signal in her brain that allows her to recognize the first player’s answers.

The concept may sound like science fiction, but the team has already made headway. Their first experiment involved one person’s brain manipulating the reflexive twitch response in another person’s finger to push a button on a computer. The experiment required no decision-making by the second person. Last year’s much publicized “game” added decision-making, but on a very basic level. The team is now building on that work with support from a $1 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation.

Andrea Stocco, left, and Chantel Prat.

"We're increasing the complexity of the information we can transfer," says Chantel Prat (right), with Andrea Stocco.

“We’re moving more in the direction of putting information into the brain and then giving the brain opportunities to integrate, synthesize, and make decisions about this information,” says Prat. “We’re increasing the complexity of information we can transfer, and also working on having the receiver send a message back to the sender, looping information back and forth in more of a conversation.” All this is being accomplished with technology developed in the 1980s. “So far we can still march ahead with existing technology because we haven’t quite pushed beyond that,” says Stocco, “but soon we’ll need something more.”

The team’s current interests include the possibility of “brain tutoring” — transferring signals directly from healthy brains to ones that are developmentally impaired or impacted by external factors such as stroke or accident.  This might include transmitting brain states, such as a sense of focus or arousal, from one person to another. Imagine a student, skilled at recognizing which information requires the most attention during class, sharing those insights with a classmate with ADHD through brain linking. Whenever the first student becomes more attentive, the ADHD student would also enter an attentional state, maximizing his or her ability to learn. 

If any of this sounds like worrisome mind control, Prat and Stocco offer a reality check. “If the purpose was to control somebody’s thoughts, this is an incredibly inefficient way to do that,” says Prat. “A 30-second ad would be much more effective than anything we can do by zapping your brain. And there’s no way we can do anything without you being a volunteer, because the [TMS] device has to be on your head. If you moved an inch away, it wouldn’t work. The intention here is to use the tool to understand the human mind, and to try to facilitate learning, rehabilitation, and communication.”