— Brain scientists at the University of Washington have used
an old-fashioned parlor game in a novel way to prove that two
people’s brains can be linked across the Internet — an
experiment that sounds like it was ripped from the pages of a
experiment is believed to be the first one to demonstrate that
two brains can be directly linked to allow one participant to
correctly guess what the other is thinking.
say melding two minds has the potential for a vast range of
applications. For example, it might allow for the transfer of
information from a healthy one to a damaged one. Or it might
allow an alert person to transmit that brain state to somebody
who is sleepy, or struggling to pay attention.
we wanted to establish is that it is possible to use this
rudimentary brain-to-brain collaboration … to solve a common
problem," said Andrea Stocco, an assistant professor of
psychology and researcher at the Institute for Learning &
Brain Sciences at the UW.
research was published recently in the journal PLOS ONE. The
brain-science investigations are funded by a $1 million grant
from the W.M. Keck Foundation.
used " 20 Questions," a popular guessing game in
which one person thinks of an object and the other tries to
guess what it is with a series of 20 or fewer questions that
can only be answered by "yes" or "no."
experiment, two participants played the game in rooms a mile
apart on campus. One participant wore an electrode-studded cap
connected to an electroencephalography machine to pick up
signals from the brain.
other wore a cap with a magnetic coil positioned over the part
of the brain that controls the visual cortex.
player wearing the electrode cap picked an object, and the
player wearing the electric coil asked a series of questions
to try to guess the object. The electrode-capped player
signaled to the questioner whether the answer was
"yes" or "no" simply by looking at a
flashing light that indicated the answer. A "yes"
sent a signal to the questioner; a "no" sent no
signal at all. The signal was transmitted via the Internet.
answer was yes, the brain activity in the first player’s
brain delivered a signal to the electric coil worn by the
second player, which translated into a visual interruption or
flash of light known as a "phosphene."
said it took trial-and-error to position the magnetic coil so
that it reliably transmitted a signal to the player asking the
questions. And not everyone saw the same visual interruption.
consistently saw lines," Stocco said. "Some saw
lightning bolts, blobs or shapes."
said the success of the experiment took researchers by
knew in theory it could work," he said. "We wanted
to know how well it could work."
arrived at the correct answer in the "20 Questions"
game 72 percent of the time; to do that, they answered more
than 90 percent of the questions correctly. In other words,
they saw the visual interruption, and interpreted it as a
sets of participants played 20 rounds of the game — a
mixture of 10 real games and 10 control games, in which no
visual signal was sent at all. Participants guessed the
correct answer only 18 percent of the time in the control
not the first time Stocco and his fellow researchers have
delivered a brain-to-brain signal over the Internet. Two years
ago, Stocco and computer-science professor Rajesh Rao
conducted an experiment in which Rao transmitted signals from
his brain to Stocco, causing his finger to twitch.
time, the two said they believed it was the first time two
human brains had been directly connected in this manner.
However, some neuroscientists dismissed the experiment as a
said researchers hope they’ll eventually be able to transmit
more complex signals, such as shapes rather than simple
flashes of light.
20 Questions experiment, "the brain is trying to make
sense of a signal that normally doesn’t exist," he
said. "The brain is saying, ‘I don’t know what this
thing is, but I think it’s a line.’ If we can control that
with more precision, we could make a shape, or an
scientists could figure out how to transmit shapes between two
brains, it might eventually allow people to collaborate on
problem-solving in a completely novel way, he said.
said there are other applications for the science, too.
example, researchers know how to measure patterns of brain
activity to tell whether somebody is paying attention. One
day, scientists may be able to capture those brain patterns
and transmit them to a person whose mind wanders, such as a
student trying to overcome Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
perhaps one day, you could record the electrical impulses that
pulse through your brain when you are at the peak of
performance, and use that to wake up your brain at a later
state, when your attention is flagging.
could be a new frontier of self-help," Stocco said.