BBC Radio 4 science programme Frontiers just had a special edition on using brain scans to read the mind.
There’s been various reports in the media about research studies that have been able to identify subjective mental states or intentions from patterns on brain scans, mainly reported as a sort of ‘mind reading’ technology.
While these are genuinely interesting studies, they’re really not at the stage of being able to ‘read’ anyone’s thoughts.
The first thing to ask yourself when you hear this sort of claim is ‘has the effect been shown to work on individuals, or only as an average over a group?’. The next is ‘what task was the effect demonstrated on?’ and finally think about how reliably the effect could be demonstrated.
For example, on a recent brain imaging study that attempted to predict intentions, the prediction was made for individuals, but only between one of two possible options and the best reliability was 71%.
In other words, this study found that for each individual, when looking back at the data, with a choice deliberately designed to be predictable, their choice could be worked out before they made it about two-thirds of the time.
It’s hardly likely to concern anyone worried about the privacy of their thoughts.
It is a start though, and the implications of how the technology might be used as it becomes more accurate are certainly thought provoking.
The special edition of Frontiers talks to some of the researchers involved in this work and tackles the ethics of the technology.
Link to Frontiers on ‘Mind-reading’ (with audio).