Eavesdropping on the Brain

Everyone has been so distracted by the government shutdown and before that, Edward Snowden and the NSA, that you probably missed the first real-time study of eavesdropping on the brain that was just published.

Before you get too excited, you should realize that the particular technique described in this paper is unlikely to spawn a large-scale government brain-monitoring program. First, it’s invasive (you have to cut out a piece of the skull, implant electrodes, and then wirelessly monitor brain activity). Second, the researchers recorded quantitative thought rather than more complex thought. What is remarkable about this study is that the researchers recorded real-time brain activity while subjects engaged in real-life activities, rather than in an artificial lab environment. The researchers found that lab math looks like real world quantitative thought in the brain. This means that the biggest indictment of neuroscience—“real-world tasks aren’t the same as lab tasks”—may be wrong. That’s why Joseph Parvizi, senior author of the study said, “We’re now able to eavesdrop on the brain in real life.” Move on, NSA. This is so much better than scouring e-mails.

I’m new here, so you don’t know whether to take me seriously. I’m quite serious. Consider this – one of my favorite neuroscientists, Jack Gallant, is building a brain-mind map. In one of his extraordinary studies, he showed subjects YouTube videos while monitoring their brain activity using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). He then built a computer algorithm “dictionary” of the brain (this brain activity corresponds to this image in the YouTube video, and so forth). Using his brain/mind/dictionary, he showed the subject new YouTube video clips that the computer didn’t get to “see” and the computer had to “guess” what the subjects were seeing. The results are really striking.

Of course, an fMRI machine is enormous, so law enforcement isn’t going to use it in the field anytime soon (or ever). By contrast, portable brain monitoring has serious potential. (Full disclosure – I already own two Neurosky portable electroencephalograph (EEG) devices, which I use to hack into my own brain activity to improve my concentration, to meditate, and more.) The Parvizi study used electrocorticography. Since we already have really simple EEG devices (they don’t measure much just yet), you can bet it’s just a matter of time before we get high-quality portable brain monitoring. In fact, DARPA has been gearing up for just that (check out its “Portable Brain Recording Device & App” Project, SB131-002). Is this the future of law enforcement and surveillance? Maybe. But not quite yet, since donning an EEG requires the awareness of the person being monitored and their cooperation.

There’s so much to discuss here. There are constitutional concerns, like the 4th Amendment (search and seizure), 5th Amendment (self-incrimination), 1st Amendment (speech). There are bioethical dilemmas including the governance of self-access, privacy, pesky debates between libertarians and paternalists about it. You’re probably already thinking back to 1984. For now, just read the study. It’s the first proof-of-concept study about real-time eavesdropping on the brain. Awesome.