Thought identification

Last updated

Thought identification refers to the empirically verified use of technology to, in some sense, read people's minds. Advances in research have made this possible by using human neuroimaging to decode a person's conscious experience based on non-invasive measurements of an individual's brain activity. [1]

Mind combination of cognitive faculties that provides consciousness, thinking, reasoning, perception, and judgement in humans and potentially other life forms

The mind is a set of cognitive faculties including consciousness, imagination, perception, thinking, judgement, language and memory. It is usually defined as the faculty of an entity's thoughts and consciousness. It holds the power of imagination, recognition, and appreciation, and is responsible for processing feelings and emotions, resulting in attitudes and actions.

Neuroimaging set of techniques to measure and visualize aspects of the nervous system

Neuroimaging or brain imaging is the use of various techniques to either directly or indirectly image the structure, function, or pharmacology of the nervous system. It is a relatively new discipline within medicine, neuroscience, and psychology. Physicians who specialize in the performance and interpretation of neuroimaging in the clinical setting are neuroradiologists.


Professor of neuropsychology Barbara Sahakian qualifies, "A lot of neuroscientists in the field are very cautious and say we can't talk about reading individuals' minds, and right now that is very true, but we're moving ahead so rapidly, it's not going to be that long before we will be able to tell whether someone's making up a story, or whether someone intended to do a crime with a certain degree of certainty." [2]

Neuropsychology is the study and characterization of the behavioral modifications that follow a neurological trauma or condition. It is both an experimental and clinical field of psychology that aims to understand how behavior and cognition are influenced by brain functioning and is concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of behavioral and cognitive effects of neurological disorders. Whereas classical neurology focuses on the pathology of the nervous system and classical psychology is largely divorced from it, neuropsychology seeks to discover how the brain correlates with the mind through the study of neurological patients. It thus shares concepts and concerns with neuropsychiatry and with behavioral neurology in general. The term neuropsychology has been applied to lesion studies in humans and animals. It has also been applied in efforts to record electrical activity from individual cells in higher primates.


MRI scanner that could be used for Thought Identification MRI-Philips.JPG
MRI scanner that could be used for Thought Identification

Psychologist John-Dylan Haynes experienced breakthroughs in brain imaging research in 2006 by using fMRI. This research included new findings on visual object recognition, tracking dynamic mental processes, lie detecting, and decoding unconscious processing. The combination of these four discoveries revealed such a significant amount of information about an individual's thoughts that Haynes termed it "brain reading". [1]

John-Dylan Haynes researcher

John-Dylan Haynes is a British-German brain researcher.

Lie detection is an assessment of a verbal statement with the goal to reveal a possible intentional deceit. Lie detection may refer to a cognitive process of detecting deception by evaluating message content as well as non-verbal cues. It also may refer to questioning techniques used along with technology that record physiological functions to ascertain truth and falsehood in response. The latter is commonly used by law enforcement in the United States, but rarely in other countries because it is based on pseudoscience. There are a wide variety of technologies available for this purpose. The most common and long used measure is the polygraph, which the U.S. National Academy of Sciences states, in populations untrained in countermeasures, can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates above chance, though below perfection. They added that the results apply only to specific events and not to screening, where it is assumed that the polygraph works less well.

The fMRI has allowed research to expand by significant amounts because it can track the activity in an individual's brain by measuring the brain's blood flow. It is currently thought to be the best method for measuring brain activity, which is why it has been used in multiple research experiments in order to improve the understanding of how doctors and psychologists can identify thoughts. [3]

The term "thought identification" started being used in 2009 after neuroscientist Marcel Just coined it in a 60 Minutes interview. His reasoning for this term pertains to his overall goal of his research "to see if they could identify exactly what happens in the brain when people think specific thoughts". [4]

Marcel Just is D. O. Hebb Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. His research uses brain imaging (fMRI) in high-level cognitive tasks to study the neuroarchitecture of cognition. Just's areas of expertise include psycholinguistics, object recognition, and autism, with particular attention to cognitive and neural substrates. Just co-directs the Brain Imaging Research Center and is a member of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at CMU.

<i>60 Minutes</i> American television newsmagazine program

60 Minutes is an American news magazine and television program that is broadcast on the CBS television network. Debuting in 1968, the program was created by Don Hewitt, who chose to set it apart from other news programs by using a unique style of reporter-centered investigation. In 2002, 60 Minutes was ranked at No. 6 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time and in 2013, it was ranked #24 on TV Guide's 60 Best Series of All Time. The New York Times has called it "one of the most esteemed news magazines on American television".


Identifying thoughts

When humans think of an object, such as a screwdriver, many different areas of the brain activate Screw Driver display.jpg
When humans think of an object, such as a screwdriver, many different areas of the brain activate

When humans think of an object, such as a screwdriver, many different areas of the brain activate. Marcel Just and his colleague, Tom Mitchell, have used fMRI brain scans to teach a computer to identify the various parts of the brain associated with specific thoughts. [5]

This technology also yielded a discovery: similar thoughts in different human brains are surprisingly similar neurologically. To illustrate this, Just and Mitchell used their computer to predict, based on nothing but fMRI data, which of several images a volunteer was thinking about. The computer was 100% accurate, but so far the machine is only distinguishing between 10 images. [5]

John-Dylan Haynes states that fMRI can also be used to identify recognition in the brain. He provides the example of a criminal being interrogated about whether he recognizes the scene of the crime or murder weapons. [5] Just and Mitchell also claim they are beginning to be able to identify kindness, hypocrisy, and love in the brain. [5] In 2008 IBM applied for a patent on how to extract mental images of human faces from the human brain. It uses a feedback loop based on brain measurements of the fusiform gyrus area in the brain which activates proportionate with degree of facial recognition. [6] EEG has also been used to identify recognition of specific information or memories by the P300 event related potential, which has been dubbed 'brain fingerprinting'. [7]

In 2011, a team led by Shinji Nishimoto used only brain recordings to partially reconstruct what volunteers were seeing. The researchers applied a new model, about how moving object information is processed in human brains, while volunteers watched clips from several videos. An algorithm searched through thousands of hours of external YouTube video footage (none of the videos were the same as the ones the volunteers watched) to select the clips that were most similar. [8] [9] The authors have uploaded demos comparing the watched and the computer-estimated videos. [10]

Predicting intentions

Some researchers in 2008 were able to predict, with 60% accuracy, whether a subject was going to push a button with their left or right hand. This is notable, not just because the accuracy is better than chance, but also because the scientists were able to make these predictions up to 10 seconds before the subject acted – well before the subject felt they had decided. [11] This data is even more striking in light of other research suggesting that the decision to move, and possibly the ability to cancel that movement at the last second, [12] may be the results of unconscious processing. [13]

John Dylan-Haynes has also demonstrated that fMRI can be used to identify whether a volunteer is about to add or subtract two numbers in their head. [5]

Reading thoughts before they are voiced

December 16, 2015, a study conducted by Toshimasa Yamazaki at Kyushu Institute of Technology found that during a rock-paper-scissors game a computer was able to determine the choice made by the subjects before they moved their hand. An EEG was used to measure activity in the Broca's area to see the words two seconds before the words were uttered. [14] [15] [16]

Brain as input device

The Emotiv Epoc is one way that users can give commands to devices using only thoughts EPOC IGN.jpg
The Emotiv Epoc is one way that users can give commands to devices using only thoughts

Emotiv Systems, an Australian electronics company, has demonstrated a headset that can be trained to recognize a user's thought patterns for different commands. Tan Le demonstrated the headset's ability to manipulate virtual objects on screen, and discussed various future applications for such brain-computer interface devices, from powering wheel chairs to replacing the mouse and keyboard. [17]

Decoding brain activity to reconstruct words

On 31 January 2012 Brian Pasley and colleagues of University of California Berkeley published their paper in PLoS Biology wherein subjects' internal neural processing of auditory information was decoded and reconstructed as sound on computer by gathering and analyzing electrical signals directly from subjects' brains. [18] The research team conducted their studies on the superior temporal gyrus, a region of the brain that is involved in higher order neural processing to make semantic sense from auditory information. [19] The research team used a computer model to analyze various parts of the brain that might be involved in neural firing while processing auditory signals. Using the computational model, scientists were able to identify the brain activity involved in processing auditory information when subjects were presented with recording of individual words. [20] Later, the computer model of auditory information processing was used to reconstruct some of the words back into sound based on the neural processing of the subjects. However the reconstructed sounds were not of good quality and could be recognized only when the audio wave patterns of the reconstructed sound were visually matched with the audio wave patterns of the original sound that was presented to the subjects. [20] However this research marks a direction towards more precise identification of neural activity in cognition.

Recognizing brain waves in security

In 2013 a project led by University of California Berkeley professor John Chuang published findings on the feasibility of brainwave-based computer authentication as a substitute for passwords. Improvements in the use of biometrics for computer authentication has continually improved since the 1980s, but this research team was looking for a method faster and less intrusive than today's retina scans, fingerprinting, and voice recognition. The technology chosen to improve security measures is an electroencephalogram (EEG), or brainwave measurer, to improve passwords into "pass thoughts." Using this method Chuang and his team were able to customize tasks and their authentication thresholds to the point where they were able to reduce error rates under 1%, significantly better than other recent methods. In order to better attract users to this new form of security the team is still researching mental tasks that are enjoyable for the user to perform while having their brainwaves identified. In the future this method could be as cheap, accessible, and straightforward as thought itself. [21]

Ethical issues

With brain scanning technology becoming increasingly accurate, experts predict important debates over how and when it should be used. One potential area of application is criminal law. Haynes states that simply refusing to use brain scans on suspects also prevents the wrongly accused from proving their innocence. [2] It has been argued that allowing brain scans in the United States would violate the 5th Amendment's right to not self incriminate. One of thousands of important questions is whether brain imaging is like testimony, or instead like DNA, blood, or semen. Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University in Atlanta predicts that this question will be decided by a Supreme Court case. [4]

In other countries outside the United States, thought Identification has already been used in criminal law. In 2008 an Indian woman was convicted of murder after an EEG of her brain allegedly revealed that she was familiar with the circumstances surrounding the poisoning of her ex-fiancé. [4] Some neuroscientists and legal scholars doubt the validity of using thought identification as a whole for anything past research on the nature of deception and the brain. [22]

Future research

Experts are unsure of how far thought identification can expand, but Marcel Just believed in 2014 that in 3–5 years there will be a machine that is able to read complex thoughts such as 'I hate so-and-so'. [4]

Donald Marks, founder and chief science officer of MMT, is working on playing back thoughts individuals have after they have already been recorded. [23]

Researchers at the University of California Berkeley have already been successful in forming, erasing, and reactivating memories in rats. Marks says they are working on applying the same techniques to humans. This discovery could be monumental for war veterans who suffer from PTSD. [23]

Further research is also being done in analyzing brain activity during video games to detect criminals, neuromarketing, and using brain scans in government security checks. [3] [4]

See also

Related Research Articles

Functional magnetic resonance imaging an MRI procedure that measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging or functional MRI (fMRI) measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. This technique relies on the fact that cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation are coupled. When an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region also increases.

Functional neuroimaging

Functional neuroimaging is the use of neuroimaging technology to measure an aspect of brain function, often with a view to understanding the relationship between activity in certain brain areas and specific mental functions. It is primarily used as a research tool in cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and social neuroscience.

A brain–computer interface (BCI), sometimes called a neural-control interface (NCI), mind-machine interface (MMI), direct neural interface (DNI), or brain–machine interface (BMI), is a direct communication pathway between an enhanced or wired brain and an external device. BCI differs from neuromodulation in that it allows for bidirectional information flow. BCIs are often directed at researching, mapping, assisting, augmenting, or repairing human cognitive or sensory-motor functions.

Auditory imagery is a form of mental imagery that is used to organize and analyze sounds when there is no external auditory stimulus present. This form of imagery is broken up into a couple of auditory modalities such as verbal imagery or musical imagery. This modality of mental imagery differs from other sensory images such as motor imagery or visual imagery. The vividness and detail of auditory imagery can vary from person-to-person depending on their background and condition of their brain. Through all of the research developed to understand auditory imagery behavioral neuroscientists have found that the auditory images developed in subjects' minds are generated in real time and consist of fairly precise information about quantifiable auditory properties as well as melodic and harmonic relationships. These studies have been able to recently gain confirmation and recognition due to the arrival of Positron emission tomography and fMRI scans that can confirm a physiological and psychological correlation.

Alpha waves are neural oscillations in the frequency range of 8–12 Hz arising from the synchronous and coherent electrical activity of thalamic pacemaker cells in humans. They are also called Berger's waves after the founder of EEG.

Brainwave entrainment, also referred to as brainwave synchronization and neural entrainment, refers to the hypothesized capacity of the brain to naturally synchronize its brainwave frequencies with the rhythm of periodic external stimuli, most commonly auditory, visual, or tactile.

Neural oscillation

Neural oscillations, or brainwaves, are rhythmic or repetitive patterns of neural activity in the central nervous system. Neural tissue can generate oscillatory activity in many ways, driven either by mechanisms within individual neurons or by interactions between neurons. In individual neurons, oscillations can appear either as oscillations in membrane potential or as rhythmic patterns of action potentials, which then produce oscillatory activation of post-synaptic neurons. At the level of neural ensembles, synchronized activity of large numbers of neurons can give rise to macroscopic oscillations, which can be observed in an electroencephalogram. Oscillatory activity in groups of neurons generally arises from feedback connections between the neurons that result in the synchronization of their firing patterns. The interaction between neurons can give rise to oscillations at a different frequency than the firing frequency of individual neurons. A well-known example of macroscopic neural oscillations is alpha activity.

Sensory neuroscience is a subfield of neuroscience which explores the anatomy and physiology of neurons that are part of sensory systems such as vision, hearing, and olfaction. Neurons in sensory regions of the brain respond to stimuli by firing one or more nerve impulses following stimulus presentation. How is information about the outside world encoded by the rate, timing, and pattern of action potentials? This so-called neural code is currently poorly understood and sensory neuroscience plays an important role in the attempt to decipher it. Looking at early sensory processing is advantageous since brain regions that are "higher up" contain neurons which encode more abstract representations. However, the hope is that there are unifying principles which govern how the brain encodes and processes information. Studying sensory systems is an important stepping stone in our understanding of brain function in general.

Neuroergonomics is the application of neuroscience to ergonomics. Traditional ergonomic studies rely predominantly on psychological explanations to address human factors issues such as: work performance, operational safety, and workplace-related risks. Neuroergonomics, in contrast, addresses the biological substrates of ergonomic concerns, with an emphasis on the role of the human nervous system.

Brain-reading uses the responses of multiple voxels in the brain evoked by stimulus then detected by fMRI in order to decode the original stimulus. Brain reading studies differ in the type of decoding employed, the target, and the decoding algorithms employed.

Electroencephalography electrophysiological monitoring method

Electroencephalography (EEG) is an electrophysiological monitoring method to record electrical activity of the brain. It is typically noninvasive, with the electrodes placed along the scalp, although invasive electrodes are sometimes used, as in electrocorticography. EEG measures voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current within the neurons of the brain. Clinically, EEG refers to the recording of the brain's spontaneous electrical activity over a period of time, as recorded from multiple electrodes placed on the scalp. Diagnostic applications generally focus either on event-related potentials or on the spectral content of EEG. The former investigates potential fluctuations time locked to an event, such as 'stimulus onset' or 'button press'. The latter analyses the type of neural oscillations that can be observed in EEG signals in the frequency domain.

The neuroscience of music is the scientific study of brain-based mechanisms involved in the cognitive processes underlying music. These behaviours include music listening, performing, composing, reading, writing, and ancillary activities. It also is increasingly concerned with the brain basis for musical aesthetics and musical emotion. Scientists working in this field may have training in cognitive neuroscience, neurology, neuroanatomy, psychology, music theory, computer science, and other relevant fields.

Consumer neuroscience is the combination of consumer research with modern neuroscience. The goal of the field is to find neural explanations for consumer behaviors in individuals both with or without disease.

The study of memory incorporates research methodologies from neuropsychology, human development and animal testing using a wide range of species. The complex phenomenon of memory is explored by combining evidence from many areas of research. New technologies, experimental methods and animal experimentation have led to an increased understanding of the workings of memory.

Imagined speech is thinking in the form of sound – “hearing” one’s own voice silently to oneself, without the intentional movement of any extremities such as the lips, tongue, or hands. Logically, imagined speech has been possible since the emergence of language, however, the phenomenon is most associated with the signal processing and detection within electroencephalograph (EEG) data as well as data obtained using alternative non-invasive, brain–computer interface (BCI) devices.

Frank H. Guenther is an American computational and cognitive neuroscientist whose research focuses on the neural computations underlying speech, including characterization of the neural bases of communication disorders and development of brain-computer interfaces for communication restoration. He is currently a professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences and biomedical engineering at Boston University.

Neuroimaging intelligence testing concerns the use of neuroimaging techniques to evaluate human intelligence. Neuroimaging technology has advanced such that scientists hope to use neuroimaging increasingly for investigations of brain function related to IQ.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to brain mapping:


  1. 1 2 Haynes, John-Dylan; Geraint, Rees. "Decoding mental states from brain activity in humans". Nature Reviews. Retrieved 8 December 2014.
  2. 1 2 The Guardian, "The brain scan that can read people's intentions"
  3. 1 2 Saenz, Aaron. "fMRI Reads the Images in Your Brain – We Know What You're Looking At". SingularityHUB. Singularity University. Retrieved 8 December 2014.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 "How Technology May Soon "Read" Your Mind". CBS News. CBS. Retrieved 8 December 2014.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 60 Minutes "Technology that can read your mind"
  6. IBM Patent Application: Retrieving mental images of faces from the human brain
  7. Farwell, Lawrence A., Drew C. Richardson, and Graham M. Richardson. 2012. “Brain Fingerprinting Field Studies Comparing P300-MERMER and P300 Brainwave Responses in the Detection of Concealed Information.” Cognitive Neurodynamics 7(4):263–99. Retrieved (
  8. Nishimoto, Shinji; Vu, An T.; Naselaris, Thomas; Benjamini, Yuval; Yu, Bin; Gallant, Jack L. (2011), "Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies", Current Biology , 21 (19): 1641–1646, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.08.031, PMC   3326357 , PMID   21945275
  9. American Blog, Breakthrough Could Enable Others to Watch Your Dreams and Memories [Video], Philip Yam
  10. Nishimoto et al. uploaded video, "Nishimoto.etal.2011.3Subjects.mpeg" on Youtube
  11. Soon, C.; Brass, M.; Heinze, H.; Haynes, J. (2008). "Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain". Nature Neuroscience. 11 (5): 543–545. CiteSeerX . doi:10.1038/nn.2112. PMID   18408715.
  12. Kühn, S.; Brass, M. (2009). "Retrospective construction of the judgment of free choice". Consciousness and Cognition. 18 (1): 12–21. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2008.09.007. PMID   18952468.
  13. Matsuhashi, M.; Hallett, M. (2008). "The timing of the conscious intention to move". European Journal of Neuroscience. 28 (11): 2344–2351. doi:10.1111/j.1460-9568.2008.06525.x. PMC   4747633 . PMID   19046374.
  14. "Silent Speech BCI - An investigation for practical problems". IEICE Technical Committee. 16 December 2015. Retrieved 17 January 2016.
  15. Danigelis, Alyssa (7 January 2016). "Mind-Reading Computer Knows What You're About to Say". Discovery News. Retrieved 17 January 2016.
  16. "頭の中の言葉 解読 障害者と意思疎通、ロボット操作も 九工大・山崎教授ら" (in Japanese). Nishinippon Shimbun. 4 January 2016. Retrieved 17 January 2016.
  17. Tan Le: A headset that reads your brainwaves
  18. Pasley, BN; David, SV; Mesgarani, N; Flinker, A; Shamma, SA; et al. (2012). "Reconstructing Speech from Human Auditory Cortex". PLoS Biol. 10 (1): e1001251. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001251. PMC   3269422 . PMID   22303281.
  19. Science decodes 'internal voices' BBC News 31 January 2012
  20. 1 2 Secrets of the inner voice unlocked 1 Feb 2012
  21. "NEW RESEARCH: COMPUTERS THAT CAN IDENTIFY YOU BY YOUR THOUGHTS". UC Berkeley School of Information. UC Berkeley. Retrieved 8 December 2014.
  22. Stix, Gary. "Can fMRI Really Tell If You're Lying?". Scientific American. Retrieved 8 December 2014.
  23. 1 2 Cuthbertson, Anthony (29 August 2014). "Mind Reader: Meet The Man Who Records and Stores Your Thoughts, Dreams and Memories". International Business Times. Retrieved 8 December 2014.