Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have been able to use imaging technology to get a peek inside the minds of test subjects. While not exactly mind-reading in the science-fiction sense, their techniques offer an unprecedented look at the way our brains construct our thoughts.
Looking for Patterns
The Carnegie Mellon team is using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look for patterns in subjects’ brain activity. The fMRI technology allows scientists to see the brain’s electrical activity in real-time, as the subject is asked to think about different things.
Using fMRI in conjunction with mental exercises, the team was able to identify distinct patterns of brain activity when the subjects were asked to think of broad concepts such as “disgust” or “spirituality.” The researchers found that not only did the subjects’ brain activity remain consistent individually, but it was also consistent from subject to subject. One person’s thoughts of disgust looked very much like any other person’s.
With a library of patterns identified, the researchers were able to look at fMRI images and tell when subjects were thinking of particular concepts.
“Now, obviously, people think very different thoughts,” says Marcel Just, PhD, the study’s lead investigator. “But, you know, people choose to do different things with their bodies. But they all walk putting one foot in front of the other. Nobody walks sideways. Nobody walks backward systematically. There’s something about the biological apparatus that makes you act in a certain way with your body. And I don’t think we realize the degree to which the biological apparatus that we have in our skulls governs, shapes the way we think.”
Patterns of Difference
The team’s techniques don’t allow them to read subjects’ specific, detailed thoughts–at least not yet–but the study does suggest the potential to better understand important differences in individuals’ thought processes. When Just’s team looked at brain activity in subjects with autism, for example, they found significant, unusual patterns.
When autistic subjects were asked to think of emotional words such as “hug,” the parts of their brains associated with thoughts of self were much less active than they would be in people without autism. This suggests that the autistic subject might be thinking of the definition of the word “hug,” rather than of a hug as an emotional activity in which he or she might participate. It’s a fascinating insight into the way autistic thought processes diverge from those of typical subjects.
Just and the University of Pittsburgh’s David A. Brent, MD, plans to build on their discoveries with a new study that will look for distinctive brain activity patterns in subjects experiencing suicidal thoughts. The prospect that his fundamental research could save lives is appealing to Just.
“It’s a lot of fun, if you’re a basic scientist, to discover how things work,” he says. “But there’s an extra level of gratification when you learn that it’s possibly helpful and useful.”