Is it possible to create and communicate through a mental link without using sensory networks? Telepathy, a common theme in science fiction, involves transferring thoughts from one person to another. As a result of recent developments in neuroscience and technology, scientists have discovered a new form of communication that does not require us to speak, listen, type, or text.
Previously, there have been attempts to achieve the goal of brain-to-brain communication, but all successful attempts have been invasive methods, which have limited practicality. Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, the director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, had a similar vision of creating a way to for people to communicate without being constrained by physical abilities, such as talking and listening. However, he wanted to implement a non-invasive method for brain-to-brain communication in order to create a more practical system. He assembled an international team of researchers specializing in neuroscience and robotic engineering to create this form of telepathic communication using a brain-computer interface, allowing humans to send messages to computers using non-invasive brain-computer interactions.1 On September 3, 2014, his team was able to successfully demonstrate direct brain-to-brain communication between human subjects on different continents. In order to facilitate this direct communication, the team combined several forms of brain technology.
One brain technology the researchers incorporated was the electroencephalogram. Electroencephalography (EEG) is a non-invasive form of a brain-computer interface that records brain activity. When brain cells communicate, they send impulses to each other. EEG detects these impulses through electrodes that are placed directly onto the scalp. The electrodes are connected to a recording device that displays the recorded brain activity as waves.2 EEG is often used clinically to examine the brain during seizures, monitor the depth of anesthesia, and inspect the brain for damage.
The second technology the team used was transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain and is often used to treat depression. The process of stimulating nerve cells involves placing a large electromagnetic coil against the scalp near the forehead and producing an electric current using the electromagnet.3 Because of the current, neurons fire and become more active. This can cause different reactions including muscle twitching or seeing flashes of light.
While EEG and TMS have different medical uses, Dr. Pascual-Leone integrated the two technologies to create a groundbreaking communication system that relies on EEG to read the original message in the sender’s brain and a TMS system to relay the information into the receiving brain. This brain-to-brain communication experiment involved four volunteers—one in India and three in France. The volunteer in India sent the messages, and the three volunteers in France received them.1
The sender was connected to an EEG-based brain-computer interface, and he transmitted the words “hola” and “ciao” to the recipients who received the message through a TMS-based receiver.1 The EEG read the sender’s brain activity and converted the letters to binary code. The transmission system used a wireless EEG that sent the data to a computer for brain-computer interface processing. The message was then sent to a TMS computer in France through the Internet. Using electromagnetic stimulation, the TMS relayed the messages to the receivers by stimulating their brains to see flashes of light in their periphery called phosphenes.1 The recipients do not directly receive the thought itself in their minds; instead, they are stimulated in the form of a phosphene code and consciously interpret stimulation. These flashes are similar to Morse code in that the participants can understand the sequences and decode the information into the greetings that were sent to them. All three recipients translated the message successfully. A second experiment was done in the same manner as the previous one, except the message was sent between participants in Spain and France. The error rate for this experiment was about 15%. Human error in the participants decoding the message that was sent to them accounted for 11% of the total error.1
These experiments proved to be an enormous advance in using properties of the brain and new technology to discover new ways of communication. However, the experimenters agree that there still remains much research to be done to make the system of brain-to-brain communication more efficient and applicable. Further developments of this communication system need to make the technology more accessible and user-friendly. The sizeable challenges of reducing EEG and TMS to a small device as well as the complexity of both instruments make brain-to-brain communication seem like an unattainable goal.
The prospect of developing direct brain-to-brain interfaces raises questions on how much it can change the way people communicate in society as well as the future of written and oral communication. This technology brings us closer to a form of communication similar to telepathy, which has only been depicted in science fiction. However, one major difference is that this technology uses the Internet as an intermediate. In science fiction, telepathy is often used to send private messages from one person to another without the chance of someone else reading or hearing the message, a characteristic that makes telepathy very appealing. If the Internet is used as an intermediate, however, the information sent through this interface will not be as private or secure as people expect telepathy to be. If this brain-to-brain technology lacks the private aspect of telepathy, will it provide any benefits when compared to our current forms of communication? In its current state, users must also take the extra effort in learning how to decode phosphene signals, an additional step that makes this brain interface a more unattractive option.
Although questions of practicality discourage the commercialization of Dr. Pascual-Leone’s invention, his experiments have made significant headway into direct brain-to-brain communication. The success of this technology depends on how efficient and user-friendly scientists can make this device. Many concepts, including early computers and space exploration, were seen as implausible or impractical in their nascency but developed into commonplace technologies. Whether or not this invention is currently practical, it is amazing how scientific research has brought the seemingly outlandish idea of telepathy closer to reality.
- Grau, C. et al. Plos One. [Online] 2014. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0105225 (accessed Oct. 13, 2014).
- National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003931.htm (accessed Oct. 13, 2014).
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/psychiatry/specialty_areas/brain_stimulation/tms/ (accessed Oct. 13, 2014).