How to Read Minds: THE FUTURIST Interviews Neuroscientist Jody Culham
Your secret plans aren't so secret after all. Last year, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which reveals blood flow within the brain, Jody Culham and her fellow researchers at the University of Western Ontario discovered that areas of the brain associated with motion exhibit increased blood flow not only when acting but also when considering whether or not to act. In the January-February issue of THE FUTURIST magazine, we look into the study. Below Culham explains her work and its applications.
THE FUTURIST: You state:
“Given that conventional fMRI analyses in humans have shown widespread, highly overlapping, and essentially undifferentiated activations for different movements (Culham et al., 2006), combined with mounting evidence that standard fMRI methods may ignore the neural information contained in distributed activity patterns (Harrison and Tong, 2009), we expected that our pattern classification approach might offer a new understanding of how various parieto-frontal brain regions contribute to the planning of goal-directed hand actions.”
What do you mean by: “standard fMRI methods may ignore the neural information contained in distributed activity?” Did this experiment use non-standard fMRI methods?
Jody Culham: In functional MRI, we measure activation levels within "voxels" (= "volumetric pixels"), which are little cubes, typically about 3 mm x 3 mm x 3 mm. Until recently, the standard approach was to average activation across a whole bunch of adjacent voxels in a brain area to look at how the overall activation level changed. For example, if we measured the activation levels across an area involved in grasping, we might find similar level for grasping a teacup by the handle vs. by the bowl. In the past few years, decoding approaches ("multivoxel pattern analysis") have been developed to look at the pattern of activation across voxels within an area. For example, it may be that when handle-grasping, one particular voxel in the "grasping area" is strongly activated while another is strongly deactivated; whereas, when bowl-grasping, the pattern is reversed. In this case, even though the total activation across the whole area is the same, by using the patterns, we can guess better than chance which action a subject in the brain scanner performed.
THE FUTURIST: At the end of the paper, you hint at one possible application in prosthesis development, what other applications can you think of? Feel free to speculate wildly.
Jody Culham: Well, to speculate wildly, I suppose that all of this work on brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) in general could lead to cyborg kinds of things even in normal people (whereas prosthetics would be aimed at people with handicaps, like spinal cord injuries). There are developments using things like brain waves (electroencephalography, EEG) to move a cursor on a screen, but EEG is quite coarse (and can't target a specific brain area with any precision). Potentially BCIs, such as multi-electrode implants, could perhaps be employed in normal brains to control things (cursors, avatars). We see our work as a proof of concept that a large number of specific areas within the human brain contain information about intended actions that could be used to control devices. Obviously it's not feasible to use a $4M brain scanner to do this in a large number of people, but there are other technical developments that may be able to tap into brain activation non-invasively (e.g, fNIR) or invasively (electrode implants). All of this is highly speculative as there are a huge number of technical and ethical issues to address.
THE FUTURIST: Are you familiar at all with the work of Nicole Speer? In a study conducted at Washington University's Dynamic Cognition laboratory (published in the journal Psychological Science in 2009,) Speer and her colleagues used fMRI to examine hemoglobin flow when people read fiction and discovered that the "readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge about past experiences." The brain regions that are activated "closely mirror those involved when people perform or imagine or observe similar real-world activities." It may be a irrelevant but it seems (to an admitted novice in these things) that the neurological “priming” effect of reading fiction is a bit like the priming effect you observed in your study.
Jody Culham: I'm not familiar with her work. However, it is consistent with a growing scientific literature suggesting that much of our understanding of things is based on simulation. For example, I might learn to ski by watching you ski and using the same motor control networks in my brain. I may even understand the word "ski" by invoking related concepts, including motor programs.
- About WFS
- Contact Us
- Frequently Asked Questions
- History of WFS
- Board and Council
- Press Room
- Futurist Gear
- Are You the Next CEO of the World Future Society?
- Book a WFS / Futurist Magazine Speaker
Free Email Newsletter
To sign up for Futurist Update, our free monthly email newsletter, enter your email in the box below and click Save.
The Toronto-Dominion Bank, currently vying for the number one position in Canada, and a growing player in the United States, issued on April 14 a special report, Natural Catastrophes: A Canadian Economic Perspective. The document doesn't directly talk about climate change but it is inferred throughout. Instead, it talks about "weather conditions" and their socioeconomic impact.
Opportunity, the little Martian rover, continues to click after a decade on the planet's surface. It is a remarkable story that the technology continues to function providing new discoveries for scientists here on Earth. Opportunity's original mission along with its companion, Spirit, was for 90 days.
Biometrics has been hailed by some as a wonderful way of determining someone’s identity, and by others as a security mechanism that is far too easy to spoof. I generally fall in the second category. I don’t mind using it for simple unimportant things like turning on my tablet, on which I keep nothing sensitive, but so far I would never trust it as part of any system that gives access to my money or sensitive files.
Johnny Depp's new film Transcendence has had futurist fandoms in a lather for months.
April 17, 2014 - Yesterday my blog posting focused on NASA's efforts to involve the public in designing better oxygen recovery systems.
Now that most of our waking hours are spent using screens we’re visibly migrating into a digital world. Like other immigrants we want and expect better lives. New digital boundaries will let us step through the looking glass, control what’s on our screens and construct the digital lives we want — in a digital world that eliminates today’s limits.