Imagine stepping into a room and catching the eye of someone inside. You exchange no words, you give no smile. But somehow, you both know you’re saying “hi.” It’s like telepathy — your brains are in sync.
What if you were in India, and the other person in France? Would brain-to-brain communication still be possible?
According to research done by scientists in Barcelona, Boston, and Strasbourg, the answer is yes. The study marked the first time conscious thoughts were transmitted directly between individuals. By recording the brain signals of one person in India with a computer system, converting them into electrical brain stimulations, and relaying them to recipients in France, the research team developed a noninvasive method of brain-to-brain communication. The transmitted messages were simple greetings: “hola” in Spanish and “ciao” in Italian.
“This represented the first time a human knew what another was thinking in such a direct way,” said Giulio Ruffini, CEO of Starlab Barcelona and author of this study.
To achieve brain-to-brain communication, the team relied on a process called synaptic transmission. Chemical signals are transmitted between neurons through spaces called synapses, generating electric impulses in the receiving neurons. These impulses drive brain function for activities including motor skills and sensory perception. In the experiment, the non-invasive technologies electroencephalography (EEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) were used as interfaces with neuronal synaptic signaling. EEG works with the sender of a message: the technology uses a helmet-like device with electrodes to record electrical activity from firing neurons in a participant’s brain. Then, TMS takes this communication to the recipient: the technology electrically stimulates parts of the recipient’s brain to produce impulses that can be perceived.
On the sending side, otherwise known as the brain computer interface, researchers encoded the words on a computer in binary code. The computer cued one subject in Thiruvananthapuram, India to think about moving either his hands for transmission of one or his feet for zero. Then, the subject’s conscious thoughts were recorded by EEG, decoded by a computer as a one or a zero, and emailed to researchers in Strasbourg, France.
At the recipient computer brain interface, the EEG signals received by email were converted for real time use in TMS. This stimulation was then delivered to at least three subjects, all healthy and between the ages of 28 and 50. TMS technology applied pulses to a recipient’s right occipital cortex, which process visual information. Then, with her vision darkened by a blindfold, the recipient was able to perceive flashes of light called phosphenes in her peripheral vision. For the binary signal one, TMS induced phosphenes, whereas for the binary signal zero, TMS was manipulated so that there were no visual signals. Finally, the recipients and the research team could decode the binary signals back into the original words.
Some previous studies have also used electrical impulses in brain-to-brain contact, and researchers have demonstrated human-to-rat and rat-to-rat brain communication. In 2013, researchers at the University of Washington induced human-to-human brain interfacing for the first time. One man playing a video game imagined pushing a button, causing another man in a different room to subconsciously press the button. The results from this experiment suggest new research directions for noninvasive brain-to-brain communication, including the transmission of emotions and feelings. “As we see it, brain-to-brain interfaces are full of possibilities…. Most of the world-changing tech innovations in mankind were innovations of communication,” said Andrea Stocco, one of the authors of the University of Washington paper.
Still, scientists who conduct brain-to-brain research warn the public not to interpret brain-to-brain communication as either telepathy or mind control. Telepathy implies the exchange of information without any of our sensory channels or physical interactions — we usually imagine people sending thoughts to each other through thin air. Scientists talk instead of hyperinteraction, or the transmission of information from one brain to another using non-invasive but still physical mechanisms.
As for mind control, Ruffini said he has no idea how we could begin to achieve it. “There is no magic in our work. It is based on hard-core science and technology and mainly on Maxwell’s equations,” he said.
Despite what science fiction says, you cannot influence the minds of other people or exchange thoughts with them without both your senses and technology. People might be 5,000 miles away or only a few steps across the room, but unless they agree to wear helmets and blindfolds, “hi” (or “hola” or “ciao”) is just a fantasy.
Cover Image: Two Yale students imagine the possibilities of telepathy. Photo by Aydin Aykol.