Nature Scitable Featured1 Scientists successfully reconstruct the minds eye for the first time as a video output A group at Berkeley has just published (£) the first successful attempt to reconstruct colour video imagery from the mind using an fMRI brain scanner. The results are startling, encouraging and a little bit scary.

The method used, called fMRI, is known for its high spatial resolution (3D imaging ability) but notoriously low temporal resolution (measurements with respect to time – effectively a slow shutter speed). In the past, this has been a barrier to research on the visual cortex because of the incredibly high rate of information processing in the visual system. However, scientists have recently developed a new MRI encoding method that allows for the modelling of brain activity in the visual system at a faster rate. In the experiment conducted by the Berkeley group, participants were shown 7,200 seconds of random colour video clips one time only, while their brains were scanned using the novel fMRI sequence.  From these scans, researchers were able to create a “dictionary” of brain activity in the visual system.

Brain visualiser 1 Scientists successfully reconstruct the minds eye for the first time as a video output

The method with which the dictionary is filtered to produce video output

After a dictionary of brain activity in the visual system was created, the participants watched a fresh unseen video from YouTube while undergoing a brain scan. This resulted in video outputs that resembled the new YouTube video shown to participants. The output appears as a collage of flickering pixels that reminds me of a cross between the paintings of prosopagnosia sufferer Chuck Close and the imagery in A Scanner Darkly.

chuck Scientists successfully reconstruct the minds eye for the first time as a video output

Chuck Close (Self Portrait)

The correlation between the videos shown to the participants and the output imagery in the collage-like videos (below) is pretty astounding especially when considering there is zero overlap between the clips used for calibration and the clips used to test the system.

The study authors suggest that the method used in this paper could eventually lead to the generation of video output from participants experiencing dreams or hallucinations. Watch this space! What was once a field reserved firmly for science fiction may fast be becoming a reality.

Listen to an NPR interview with the researchers here:

Nishimoto S, Vu AT, Naselaris T, Benjamini Y, Yu B, & Gallant JL (2011). Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies. Current biology : CB PMID: 21945275

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Do you ever feel like you are living in a rabbit hole? The same recycled news, phone tapping, phone tapping, phone tapping. The internet is making you stupid. Blah. Blah. Blah?Is Google making us Stupid Google is Destroying Your Memory. Sorry WHAT?

Once again a controversial academic paper is claiming that the internet is damaging our ability to recall, or at least changing the way we think. This time it has appeared in the journal Science titled “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips” (£). We’ve discussed previously the vast ammounts of unfounded conjecture surrounding this topic but until now there has been little (if any) published research that comes close to shedding any light on the issue. Somewhat unsurprisingly the paper is being taken very seriously, however on closer inspection it presents a far from watertight case. As Buldric might say, this case is in fact so leaky a marauding lascivious nun wouldn’t use it to surreptitiously store her illicit liquor stash. Darling.

Leaky Darrrrling Google is Destroying Your Memory. Sorry WHAT?

Darling's Leaky Case

The paper uses an interesting (ahem) technique of measuring how much participants are thinking of computers when asked to recall information. The method called the “stroop test” is traditionally used as a texbook measure of attention.

stroop Google is Destroying Your Memory. Sorry WHAT?

Why is this pattern familiar? Are you thinking what I'm thinking..?

In the experiment 106 Harvard graduates were given trivia questions. After this happened, coloured words either relating to computers or not relating to computers popped up and participants would have to say the colour of the word. This is the crucial bit. The logic that the “findings” that “Google effects memory” depend on, is based on the presumption that if the Harvard grads were already thinking of googling the answer then this would delay their response upon seeing the word “Google” (or “Yahoo”) in a stroop test. Now, as always, I hate to throw a spanner in the works of a watertight hypothesis but there does seem to be a slight confounding variable in the fact that the Google logo is erm, multi-*******-coloured.

Google Google is Destroying Your Memory. Sorry WHAT?


I’m always struck by the leap of faith that goes in to reaching conclusions in studies such as this but this time it just seems plain ridiculous. The researchers claim that:

“People who have been disposed to think about a certain topic [i.e. internet search providers] typically show slowed reaction times (RTs) for naming the color of the word when the word itself is of interest and is more accessible, because the word captures attention and interferes with the fastest possible color naming.”

One of the things I tend to find a bit odd is that such tiny results can be used to reach such sweeping conclusions, in this study the difference in reaction time between the “computer terms” and the “general terms” was a fraction of a second…

Google memory Google is Destroying Your Memory. Sorry WHAT?

Difference in reaction times on Stroop task after hearing each word

Never mind the monster of a confounding variable that the Google logo is famously multi-[deep breaths now]-coloured but surely there are positively dozens of other factors at work such as that the terms “Google” and “Yahoo” are likely to ellicit far more complex ideas and memories than the control words “Nike” and “Target”. I mean come on, the mere words “Nike” and “Target” are unlikely to excite even the most hard core sportswear fans let alone a bunch of Harvard graduates.

Nike Jokers Google is Destroying Your Memory. Sorry WHAT?

Hardcore Sportswear Fans

Come to think of it I’m pretty sure there are plently of Harvard graduates that would have loved nothing more than to have been the ones to come up with the code underlying Google (Yahoo, not so much).

google party1 Google is Destroying Your Memory. Sorry WHAT?I rest my.. case.

rb2 large gray Google is Destroying Your Memory. Sorry WHAT?

Sparrow, B. Liu, J. & Wegner , D. (2011) Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science

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remote controlled rat Remote Controlled Rats

Head top unit

Last month we covered Kevin Warwick’s creation of a robot controlled remotely by living rat brain tissue. This month a similar project by a group at MIT has completed almost exactly the same task in reverse. Electrodes implanted in a rat’s brain have been used to remotely control the rat’s movements by delivering impulses of light directly in to the brain tissue.  Until now a problem for this method has been the size of the batteries required to power the unit that sits on the rat’s head. This problem has been solved to some extent by using “wireless power”, which consists of placing a small magnetic coil on the head top unit and transmitting electricity via a magnetic field from a nearby magnetic coil.

remote controlled rat 21 Remote Controlled Rats

Wirelessly powered and controlled optogenetics

The remote control addition to this project is the ground breaking element here. It has long been known that electric stimulation of the brain can illicit specific behaviours. More recently the field of optogenetics has emerged becoming Nature’s “method of the year” in 2010. Optogenetics involves the use of a gene for producing light-sensitive protein in algae which is tied to the promoter for another gene which identifies neurons that elicit a given behaviour such as sex, aggression or the flight response. The light sensitive protein itself (such as channelrhodopsin) then activates those neurons electrically when the light is on. The modified gene is then delivered in to the brain by a virus. The neurons that trigger a particular behaviour can then be activated at the flick of a switch just by shining light on the brain using an LED.

Believe it or not, the purpose of this research isn’t a macabre project to develop Frankenstein pets. The emerging fields of optogenetics and remote power transmission combined are likely to result in vast developments in the fields of neural prosthetics. Theoretically there are also endless possibilities for the management of mood disorders. Optogenetics will surely be a field I’ll be keeping my eye on.

The original paper is open-access for 30 days (PDF)

rb2 large gray Remote Controlled Rats

Wentz CT, Bernstein JG, Monahan P, Guerra A, Rodriguez A, & Boyden ES (2011). A wirelessly powered and controlled device for optical neural control of freely-behaving animals. Journal of neural engineering, 8 (4) PMID: 21701058

Via Ed Yong on Not Exactly Rocket Science

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The traditional polygraph or lie-detector-test as it is commonly known has been in existence for over a hundred years and in that time developments in both the technology itself and our understanding of it have been far and few between (read utterly non-existent). The traditional polygraph works in a very similar way to the traditional witch finding technique: tie them up, drop them in a river and if they live they are a probably a witch. Despite this a new breed of lie detector tests known as “Brain Finger Printing” is emerging that according to a number of experts could be even more unreliable than the status quo once it gets in to the hands of the police, the secret service, cranks and talk show hosts alike the world over.

emperor 300x279 Brain Fingerprinting, The Bastard Child of the PolygraphThe Theoretical Flaw

Essentially all forms of the original polygraph are an attempt to identify when either anxiety is present or when there is prior knowledge of information that would imply guilt through examining biological indicators. The former is a much less reliable indicator than the latter due to the fact that the tests in general invariably provoke anxiety. The main technique which is slightly more reliable involves presenting certain crime scenes to a suspect and then waiting for the “ahah” moment when their blood pressure rises when they are forced to attend to the target item that they are not supposed to know about. Sadly this method assumes two things: that the suspect isn’t just worried he’s been wrongly accused and that the suspect isn’t second guessing the interrogator and freaking out at the dodgiest or most likely sounding scenario.

What do the experts say?

In the largest review of polygraph testing to date, the National Academy of Sciences found that the accuracy of the polygraph was 80-90% when tested artificially. This leaves a hell of a large window for error if you consider that critically that means that when it comes down to it the polygraph will be wrong almost one in four times. The problem with this figure however is that we still have really no idea what we are measuring, it could be in response to anxiety, emotional salience, memory of an event or most likely a combination of the three. The problem being that all three of these factors conflict and none can be identified. The 2003 review of the scientific evidence by the US National Research Council effectively concluded that further investment in the polygraph is futile because of the “inherent ambiguity of the physiological measures”.

So why in that case is the industry experiencing a boom?

Polygraphs do have one value; they often are useful for frightening the victim in to giving a confession. They are also a very easy sell to the paranoid partner and nowadays more worryingly the prying employer.

I don’t know anything about polygraphs, and I don’t know how accurate they are, but I know they’ll scare the hell out of people.” Richard M. Nixon

So what is brain fingerprinting?

Brain Fingerprinting uses electrodes attached to the scalp (EEG) to attempt to define whether someone has experienced an event that would imply guilt. For example if the suspect gave a signal (known as the p-300) that suggests they recognised the scene of a robbery they were suspected of committing this would imply guilt. If the suspect did not recognise the scene it would imply innocence, much like real fingerprints left at a crime. This technology was used in America as long ago as 2000 by a defence council to free a convicted criminal, an interesting decision considering that it is far from impossible to suppress the P300 response.

fmri 218x300 Brain Fingerprinting, The Bastard Child of the Polygraph

The inevitable progression from polygraph to EEG has now lead some investigators to attempt to use a method of brain scanning (FMRI) to look for similar markers to see if certain memories are genuine. The main problem with this technique is that in many ways, when compared to the traditional polygraph the lines are even more blurred. It is very easy for an interrogator with or without bad intent and consciously or not to interpret a brain scan as indicative of guilt. This is of course the goal and the motive of the interrogator. In a stunning study published last year, scientists placed a dead salmon in an FMRI scanner and presented it with images of human faces. It was found to be recognising emotions. Even though it was dead, and a salmon.

“In fMRI, you have 160,000 darts, and so just by random chance, by the noise that’s inherent in the fMRI data, you’re going to have some of those darts hit a bull’s-eye by accident”  Craig Bennet

The benefit of a salmon is you can replay this test again and again and realise that your results are just down to blind luck. With a live, human suspect however you don’t really have that option. Now the same technology is being used by prosecutors to determine the freedom of our friends across the pond and according to some reports in places like Guantanamo. How many red herrings they hit upon we will never know.

red herring color Brain Fingerprinting, The Bastard Child of the Polygraph

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