Telepathy: A Penny for your Thoughts

This could alter the way we communicate with stroke and accident victims who are “locked in” their bodies, unable to articulate their thoughts except through blinks
Telepathy: A Penny for your Thoughts
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Harry Houdini, some historians believe, was the greatest magician who ever lived. His breathtaking escapes from locked, sealed chambers and death-defying stunts left audiences gasping. He could make people disappear and then reemerge in the most unexpected places. And he could read people’s minds.

Or at least it seemed that way.

Houdini took pains to explain that everything he did was an illusion, a series of clever sleight-of-hand tricks. Mind reading, he would remind people, was impossible. He was so “outraged that unscrupulous magicians would cheat wealthy patrons by performing cheap parlor tricks and séances that he even went around the country exposing fakes by pledging he could duplicate any feat of mind reading performed by these charlatans. He was even on a committee organized by Scientific American that offered a generous reward to anyone who could positively prove they had psychic power. (No one ever picked up the reward.)

Houdini believed that telepathy was impossible. But science is proving Houdini wrong.

Telepathy is now the subject of intense research at universities around the world, where scientists have already been able to use advanced sensors to read individual words, images, and thoughts in a person’s brain. This could alter the way we communicate with stroke and accident victims who are “locked in” their bodies, unable to articulate their thoughts except through blinks. But that’s just the start. Telepathy might also radically change the way we interact with computers and the outside world.

Indeed, in a recent “Next 5 in 5 Forecast,” which predicts five revolutionary developments in the next five years, IBM scientists claimed that we will be able to mentally communicate with computers, perhaps replacing the mouse and voice commands. This means using the power of the mind to call people on the phone, pay credit card bills, drive cars, make appointments, create beautiful symphonies and works of art, etc. The possibilities are endless, and it seems that everyone

—from computer giants, educators, video game companies, and music studios to the Pentagon—is converging on this technology.

True telepathy, found in science-fiction and fantasy novels, is not possible without outside assistance. As we know, the brain is electrical. In general, anytime an electron is accelerated, it gives off electromagnetic radiation. The same holds true for electrons oscillating inside the brain, which broadcasts radio waves. But these signals are too faint to be detected by others, and even if we could perceive these radio waves, it would be difficult to make sense of them. Evolution has not given us the ability to decipher this collection of random radio signals, but computers can. Scientists have been able to get crude approximations of a person’s thoughts using EEG scans. Subjects would put on a helmet with EEG sensors and concentrate on certain pictures—say, the image of a car.

The EEG signals were then recorded for each image and eventually a rudimentary dictionary of thought was created, with a one-to-one correspondence between a person’s thoughts and the EEG image. Then, when a person was shown a picture of another car, the computer would recognize the EEG pattern as being from a car.

The advantage of EEG sensors is that they are noninvasive and quick. You simply put a helmet containing many electrodes onto the surface of the brain and the EEG can rapidly identify signals that change every millisecond. But the problem with EEG sensors, as we have seen, is that electromagnetic waves deteriorate as they pass through the skull, and it is difficult to locate their precise source. This method can tell if you are thinking of a car or a house, but it cannot re-create an image of the car. That is where Dr. Jack Gallant’s work comes in.


The epicenter for much of this research is the University of California at Berkeley, where I received my own Ph.D. in theoretical physics years ago. I had the pleasure of touring the laboratory of Dr. Gallant, whose group has accomplished a feat once considered to be impossible: videotaping people’s thoughts. “This is a major leap forward reconstructing internal imagery. We are opening a window into the movies in our mind,” says Gallant.

When I visited his laboratory, the first thing I noticed was the team of young, eager postdoctoral and graduate students huddled in front of their computer screens, looking intently at video images that were reconstructed from someone’s brain scan. Talking to Gallant’s team, you feel as though you are witnessing scientific history in the making.

Gallant explained to me that first the subject lies flat on a stretcher, which is slowly inserted headfirst into a huge, state-of-the-art MRI machine, costing upward of $3 million. The subject is then shown several movie clips (such as movie trailers readily available on YouTube). To accumulate enough “data, the subject has to sit motionless for hours watching these clips, a truly arduous task. I asked one of the postdocs, Dr. Shinji Nishimoto, how they found volunteers who were willing to lie still for hours on end with only fragments of video footage to occupy the time. He said the people in the room, the grad students and postdocs, volunteered to be guinea pigs for their own research.

Excerpt From: Michio Kaku. “The Future of the Mind.” .

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