Conversations' Karen Bartlett met the team who can read your mind with a phone. Be afraid, this is pretty scary stuff.
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Jim Fallon is a world-renowned neuroscientist. He’s also a potential psychopath, or so say the results of a brain scan and a series of genetic tests that he undertook to check if he was prone to Alzheimer’s disease.
“Luckily I took those tests at the end of my career, I was just at the point of retiring. I know that I’ve never hurt anyone, or gone to jail. But if I’d taken them and known that information when I was a wild young man it could all have been different.”
Jim spent his career studying the brain scans of psychopaths and serial killers at the University of California at Irvine. He was shocked when the scans showed he had the same abnormal, distinctive, reactions in his prefrontal lobe relating to empathy and human closeness. “I’m not a psychopath, but I do have those tendencies. You wouldn’t want to be married to me, or be my mother.”
His work in neuroscience has given Jim a clinical understanding of the intricate details of what goes on in our brains. Until recently few of us would ever share that knowledge, or discover those tendencies. But now the work of a team of scientists in Denmark has opened up the world of our unconscious by developing a mobile brain scanner powered by a Nokia N900, which reads and produces real-time data that can be used to interpret our feelings and reactions. In a few months we will all be able to scan our brains and interpret the data by downloading an app and buying a cheap headset for as little as $300.
“This sounds like a nightmare,” Jim said. “When I first heard about this I was very excited. It’s an amazing advance, but the more I think about it the more cautious I become. There are technical issues connected to the scan itself, and then there are many ethical issues.”
The scanner has been developed by a team at Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and works by connecting a commercially available wireless 14-channel EEG headset to a Nokia N900 smartphone. Jacob Eg Larsen, who leads the team at DTU, explained that the headset transmits the EEG data to the handset where the data is decrypted, and passed on to a reconstruction module which outputs a color visualization.
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Scanning in practice
One of Larsen’s colleagues, Arek Stopczynski, puts on the headset, and starts the app. A 3D model of the brain appears on screen that lights up as brainwaves are detected. The app connects to a remote server for more detailed data, which is then displayed on the cell phone. “Its a two stage process,” Stopczynski explains, “Seeing the visualization, and then classifying the data. Traditionally that could take several hours on a computer. Our next step is to move that onto the phone itself and do it in real time.”
It’s a goldmine of information that’s got potential users lining up to try it out – including those who want to track the reactions of pedophiles, quit smoking, help children with ADHD, spot liars in job interviews or just increase personal self-awareness, and then post the results on Facebook.
In essence, the team at DTU may have built what amounts to a real-life imagination machine – offering previously undreamed-of insights into our deepest reactions and emotions. It’s an idea that neuro-marketers have quickly seen the potential in.
“This is a game changer,” said Thomas Ramsoy from the Copenhagen Business School. “It opens up a new way to access consumers’ brains and see how they make in-store decisions.”
Jacob Larsen and his team are meeting at DTU on the day after the first shopper has tried the brain scanner in a Copenhagen supermarket. The news report on Danish television shows the woman putting on the headset and picking up a blue plastic shopping basket. As she walks through the aisles the scanner lights up in neon colors as she passes products she recognizes. But it’s too early to tell if she thinks ice cream is great but broccoli less so.
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Carsten Stahlhut, who set up the supermarket experiment, discusses the results with the team and says that “The next stage is to make the signals meaningful. When you move around, or even move your eyeballs, that gives off strong signals – and part of our program is to filter out those signals and read the pure data.”
For the first time companies will be able to scan several people at the same time, and see how a family interacts and makes decisions when they are out shopping.
Of course clever marketing experts already know how families shop, and what makes people buy their products, but a mobile brain scanner takes consumer modeling to a new level.
How it works:
Raw EEG data is obtained from a wireless Emotiv 14 channel Neuroheadset with a sampling rate of 128Hz and electrodes positioned on the international 10-20 system.
The source reconstruction is performed over number of samples (default over 16 samples resulting in 8Hz visualization).
The delay between the signal appearing in the headset and being visualized on the screen is between 130 and 150 msec for 8Hz visualization.
The frame rate of the visualization (realized in OpenGL) is around 30fps.
As human beings we’re far more predictable than we like to admit, but even companies like Amazon are reduced to a best guess about what we might like to buy in the future based upon what we’ve already done in the past. Jacob Larsen says the mobile brain scanner offers a more “intense modeling” giving a glimpse of what has until now been a closed world of thoughts and responses.
It is the glimpse into those reactions that alarms scientists like Jim Fallon, who showed psychopathic tendencies on his own brain scan. Should you be judged on your brain scan, or your behavior? What if you are a convicted pedophile whose brain continues to show responses to images of children, but you never act on those responses?
“There are many ethical issues related to brain imaging in general, and this is a new world,” Jacob Larsen admits. “Its not clear what this information will do to a normal person. And we have no idea what the consequences of sharing this data will be. What will happen if we share our brain data on Facebook? What happens if people interpret this data now, or in the future?”
There’s no doubt though that, like personal genetic testing, people, rather than doctors, will be able to access and control the most essential information relating to their own clinical make-up for the first time. We’ll know what makes us tick, and for most doctors that is a terrifying reality:
“I can’t imagine the average person using this information correctly. Even a medical student would get it wrong,” says Jim Fallon. “There could be mayhem. When we scanned the brains of serial killers we had to send off the data and work with people to analyze it. Interpreting data is not a trivial task, and there are millions of questions about each scan. It’s endless.”
In truth it can mean everything, or nothing at all – so I try the device for myself.
Jacob Larsen hands me the headset and tightens the sensors. After some adjustment a 3D image of my brain springs to life on the screen of the Nokia N900. Using my finger I can rotate it and see it change color. When I talk a part of my left frontal lobe turns yellow and throbs mildly. Then I laugh and a splodge of deep purple explodes in the deeper back recesses of my brain. What does this mean? As Jim Fallon predicted, I have no idea.
Although we remain endlessly fascinated with ourselves, a little self-awareness can be a dangerous thing. Would someone live a different life if they saw a brain scan and interpreted it to mean they suffered from an illness like schizophrenia?
There’s no doubt that a lightweight mobile brain scanner could have significant medical benefits. An article by Kenneth Jordan in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 1999 claimed that, in an emergency, continuous EEG monitoring is the key to identifying, and locating, brain dysfunction when it is still at a reversible stage. When a person has a stroke that timing could be crucial.
Jim Fallon remains dubious, however, that the mobile EEG scanner currently in development can identify deep parts of the brain – or those areas associated with mental illness, or behavior like pedophilia.
“It took us $60 million and eight years to standardize hospital FMRI scanners so that the readings they produce are really reliable. That leaves this product as a parlor game.”
Standardising a scanner for use in, for example, a court room, might be years in the future, but Jacob Larsen points out that the headset could be easily adapted to include more electrodes, answering many of the medical criticisms of the device. In addition, the informal nature of conducting a scan could in itself change the way we think and act. The team at DTU have been studying neuro-feedback where users are presented with their brain results at the same time as their actions. No one knows how it works, but studies have shown that smokers who see the effect of the nicotine hit at the same time as they experience it are able to train their brains to reduce the response. Similar work is underway to help children with ADHD.
Now we’re talking. A real-time brain scan that enables us retrain our brain really could lead a neuro-revolution, and Jacob Larsen is mindful of the fact that noone knows where that road might take us: “What we do could be used by the military, or it could save lives in a hospital. There are ethical dilemmas, but as scientists we shouldn’t let that spoil too much of the fun.”