Hacking the brain for fun and profit

A study presented at the recent Usenix conference demonstrated how it is possible to get private information from the brains of people who use commercial brain-computer interfaces – like NeuroSky and Emotiv.

These headsets are designed for gamers and are cheaper, less accurate versions of EEG devices – used by scientists to read the electrical activity of the brain by attaching electrodes to the surface of the scalp.

The new study, titled ‘On the Feasibility of Side-Channel Attacks with Brain-Computer Interfaces’ (available online as a pdf), took advantage of a reliable brain signal called the P300.

The P300 reflects the brain’s categorisation of something as relevant, important or meaningful. If you’re shown a series of photo portraits, for example, the P300 will kick in when you see photos of people you recognise but not to strangers.

One form of the not-very-reliable EEG ‘lie detector’ is based on this principle. Called the Guilty Knowledge Test, the idea is that the police would show you photos of the crime scene, and if you had actually been there, your P300 would kick in.

This new study was based on a similar principle. The researchers ran various experiments based on the same idea: they’d ask a question to make sure the key information was at the forefront of the study participant’s mind, and then they’d fire a bunch of information at the volunteer to pick out which was most associated with the P300.

For example, in one experiment participants were told they would have to type in the first digit of their newly acquired PIN number into the computer, but before this happened, the volunteers were shown a series of single digits, while the software recorded which numerals were most associated with the P300.

In another, the P300 was recorded while participants were shown pictures of branded credit cards and bank machines. Another experiment asked participants to think of their month of birth before showing them all the options, while another flashed up maps of the local area to determine their approximate home address.

You can see how the researchers were angling to get the equivalent of essential account details out of the volunteers.

Although the set-up was a little artificial, the researchers note that this sort of unconscious personal detail dredging could be incorporated into a game-like activity, so people would be unaware of what was really happening.

The test was a success scientifically, in that the key information was identified more often than chance, but fraudsters are unlikely to be eschewing email hacking for NeuroSky pwning anytime soon. The hit rate was about 10-20%.

Nevertheless, as a demonstration of a ‘hacking brain wave data from a commercial gaming equipment to get personal information’ you have to take your hat off to the research team.

Even more interestingly, perhaps, is the increasing trend for security technology to move towards the interface between mind and machine.

Another study presented at the same conference showed how people could input ‘passwords’ into a system without any conscious knowledge of knowing a password.

The idea relies on implicit learning – which is where you learn connections between things without having any conscious knowledge of doing so.

For example, when playing a computer game like Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, the same short sequence of moves might come up several times but you might not be aware of it, because they would be embedded within a larger sequence.

However, simply by having encountered the sequence before you will do better the second time – because you have practised the response – even if you have no conscious memory of it.

For each user, this new study embedded a newly generated ‘password of moves’ several times into a longer sequence and made sure they were well practised. Later, the software could identify each user by spitting out those moves again and checking the performance to see if they’d been encountered before. The participants were unaware of anything except that they were playing a game.

Looking at the bigger picture, the fact that computer security could rely on the fine detail of how the brain works could open up a whole new arena of security vulnerabilities.

Perhaps you could be covertly trained to enter someone else’s security details, or perhaps that last game you played actually trained you to leak your login details in another activity – all of which may be completely unnoticeable to your conscious mind.

Black hat neuroscientists may suddenly become very concerned with how these automatic effects could be influenced in very specific, and of course, very lucrative, ways.

Link to study on brain-based personal details hacking (via BoingBoing)
Link to unconscious password study.

A country on the couch

The New York Times discusses Argentina’s love affair with psychoanalysis. A country that has more psychologists – the majority Freudian – than any other nation on Earth.

Argentina is genuinely unique with regard to psychology. Even in Latin America, where Freudian ideas remain relatively strong, Argentina remains a stronghold of the undiluted classic schools of psychoanalysis.

It is also unique in terms of the access people have to the practice. In the majority of the world, psychoanalysis is the reserve of the upper middle classes and aristocracy – both in terms of the analysts and the patients.

While the watered-down (some would say made sensible) psychodynamic psychotherapy is more widely available, psychoanalytic training and therapy is extremely expensive. You could easily spend a couple of thousand US dollars a month on therapy alone.

As trainees have to be taught, supervised and be in constant treatment themselves (although the latter usually at a discounted rate) it remains a practice by and for a very narrow group from society. If you want to see this for yourself, training institutes often have open evenings, which I highly recommend as an interesting anthropological field trip.

This elitism is much less the case in Argentina, however, meaning that people from all walks of life see psychoanalysts and Freudian-inspired commentary is an integral part of popular culture.

The NYT article is a little puzzled as to why psychoanalysis has gained such a foothold in the country. Of course, it received a great many psychoanalyst émigrés in the years surrounding the Second World War, as many were Jewish, but in covering similar ground myself, I wondered whether there are good psychological reasons for its continued popularity.

Link to NYT piece on psychoanalysis in Argentina.
Link to earlier piece by me on the same.

Communicating at the speed of thought

Your humble hosts, Tom and Vaughan, have written an article for Trends in Cognitive Sciences about how social media is changing mind and brain research.

The piece is both a brief introduction to blogs and Twitter, as well as an overview of how scientific debate happens online and how it is affecting the traditional approach to cognitive science.

Although we focus on cognitive science, it actually applies to science and science communication in general:

Fundamentally, there are important similarities between principles of traditional scientific culture and on-line culture: both prioritise access to information, citation (whether to journals or via links to other online sources), and kudos for whoever does good work. Academia aspires to openness, engagement, and respect for the principles of rational discussion. Social media facilitate these. The online community is free-flowing, somewhat chaotic, and information-rich – much the same as science has ever been.

In the same spirit, Trends in Cognitive Sciences have made the article freely available online, so you can read it at the link below.

Link to ‘Brain network: social media and the cognitive scientist’.

BBC Future column: What a silver medal teaches us about regret

Here’s my column from last week for BBC Future. The original is here

The London 2012 Olympic Games are almost over now, and those Olympians with medals are able to relax and rest on the laurels of victory. Or so you might think. Spare a thought for the likes of Yohan Blake, McKayla Maroney, or Emily Seebohm – those people who are taking home silver.

Yes, that’s right, I’m asking you to feel sorry for silver medallists, not for the bronze medallists or for those who didn’t get the chance to stand on the podium at all.

Research has shown that silver medallists feel worse, on average, than bronze medallists. (Gold medallists, obviously, feel best of all.) The effect is written all over their faces, as psychologists led by Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University found out when they collected footage of the medallists at the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona. Gilovich’s team looked at images of medal winners either at the end of events – that is, when they had just discovered their medal position – or as they collected their medals on the podium. They then asked volunteers who were ignorant of the athlete’s medal position to rate their facial expressions. Sure enough, the volunteers rated bronze medallists as consistently and significantly happier than silver medallists, both immediately after competing, and on the podium.

The reason is all to do with how bronze and silver medallists differ in the way they think events could have turned out – what psychologists call “counterfactual thinking”. In a follow-up study, the team went to the 1994 Empire State Games and interviewed athletes immediately after they had competed. Silver medallists were more likely to use phrases like “I almost…”, concentrating their responses on what they missed out on. Bronze medallists, on the other hand, tended to contemplate the idea of missing out on a medal altogether. These differences in counterfactual thinking make silver medallists feel unlucky, in comparison to a possible world where they could have won gold, and make bronze medallists feel lucky, in comparison to a possible world where they could have returned home with nothing.

So the research seems to add a bit of scientific meat to Hamlet’s famous line “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so“, as well as revealing something about the psychology of regret. Even though we must deal with the world as it is, a vital part of life is imagining the world as it could be – thinking about a job you should have applied for (or said “no” to), or someone you should (or shouldn’t) have asked out on a date, for instance.

Haunted by the past

Different possible worlds crowd compete, some seeming closer than others, and this is what drives regret. This is illustrated by a study that asked volunteers to read a story about a plane crash survivor who walked through the wilderness for days, collapsing and die before reaching civilisation. They were then asked how much compensation the victim’s family should receive. People who read a version where the survivor collapsed 75 miles (120 kilometres) from safety awarded less compensation than those who read that the survivor collapsed just a quarter of a mile from safety.

Both scenarios ended the same, but the second version seems more tragic to us because the person seemed so much closer to safety. Remember that the next time you see a Hollywood film that plays with your emotions in this manner.

Understanding the psychology of regret also helps to put our own thoughts and emotions into context. We’re all haunted by things we could have done, or shouldn’t have done. What’s the point in dwelling on such matters, we may ask, when we can’t change the past? But the study of the Olympic medallists gives us two thoughts that might help us deal with regret.

The first is that regret, like imagination generally, exists for a reason – this amazing cognitive ability is what allows us to plan for the future and, with luck, change things based on how we imagine they might turn out. Medallists who feel more regret may well go on to train harder, and smarter, and so be better able to win gold at the next Olympics. Regret, like so many of the territories of the mind, can hurt. It hurts whether we can change how things have worked out, or not, but the feeling is built into our brains for a good reason (however little comfort that provides).

The second thought that might help us deal with regret is to realise that there are many possible worlds we could compare events to. It’s natural for many silver medallists to feel that they’ve missed out on gold, and to the extent we can choose what we compare ourselves to, we can choose how we feel about our regrets. We can use them to drive us to future success, but also to appreciate what we do have.

So maybe it isn’t all bad for Blake, Maroney or Seebohm after all?

A very modern trauma

Posttraumatic stress disorder is one of the defining disorders of modern psychiatry. Although first officially accepted as a diagnosis in the early 1980s, many believe that it has always been with us, but two new studies suggest that this unlikely to be the case – it may be a genuinely modern reaction to trauma.

The diagnosis of PTSD involves having a traumatic experience and then being affected by a month of symptoms of three main groups: intrusive memories, hyper-arousal, and avoidance of reminders or emotional numbing.

It was originally called ‘post-Vietnam syndrome’ and was promoted by anti-war psychiatrists who felt that the Vietnam war was having a unique effect on the mental health of American soldiers, but the concept was demilitarised and turned into a civilian diagnosis concerning the chronic effects of trauma.

Since then there has been a popular belief that PTSD has been experienced throughout history but simply wasn’t properly recognised. Previous labels, it is claimed, like ‘shell shock’ or ‘combat fatigue’, were just early descriptions of the same universal reaction.

But until now, few studies have systematically looked for PTSD or post-trauma reactions in the older historical record. Two recent studies have done exactly this, however, and found no evidence for a historical syndrome equivalent to PTSD.

A study just published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders looked at the extensive medical records for soldiers in the American Civil War, whose mortality rate was about 50-80 greater than modern soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In other words, there would have been many more having terrifying experiences but despite the higher rates of trauma and mentions of other mental problems, there is virtually no mention of anything like the intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of PTSD.

In a commentary, psychologist Richard McNally makes the point that often these symptoms have to be asked about specifically to be detected, but even so, he too admits that the fact that PTSD-like symptoms virtually make no appearance in hundreds of thousands of medical records suggests that PTSD is unlikely to be a ‘universal timeless disorder’.

Taking an even longer view, a study published in Stress and Health looked at historical accounts of traumatic experiences from antiquity to the 16th century.

The researchers found that although psychological trauma has been recognised throughout history, with difficult events potentially leading to mental disorder in some, there were no consistent effects that resembled the classic PTSD syndrome.

Various symptoms would be mentioned at various times, some now associated with the modern diagnosis, some not, but it was simply not possible to find ‘historical accounts of PTSD’.

The concept of PTSD is clearly grounded in a particular time and culture, but even from a modern diagnostic perspective it is important to recognise that we tend to over-focus on PTSD as the outcome of horrendous events.

Perhaps the best scientific paper yet published on the diversity of trauma was an article authored by George Bonanno and colleagues in 2011. You can read the full-text online as a pdf.

It notes that the single most common outcome after a traumatic event is recovery without intervention, and for those who do remain affected, depression and substance abuse problems are equally, if not more likely, than a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Link to locked study on trauma in Civil War soldiers.
Link to locked study on trauma through history.

The science and politics of mind-altering drugs

The Guardian Science Podcast has an interview with neuroscientist David Nutt on the science and politics of mind-altering substances and it’s possibly one of the most sensible discussions of drugs and drug harms you are likely to hear in a long time.

Prof Nutt is quite well known in the UK – largely due to be fired by the Government from their drugs advisory panel for pointing out in a scientific paper that the health risks of taking ecstasy are about equivalent to going horse riding.

Rather than doing the usual dishonest apology required of government advisors where they ask forgiveness for ‘unintentionally misleading the public’ away from a convenient collective illusion, he decided to take the government to task about their disingenuous drug policy.

He is now a straight-talking, evidence-based, pain-in-the-arse to the government who doggedly stick to the ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric that not even they believe any more.

In the interview the discussion ranges from how psychedelic affect the brain to the scientific basis (or lack thereof) of drug policy. Essential listening.

Link to Science Podcast interview with David Nutt.