By: Jim Schnabel
Laboratory demonstrations of “mind reading” with functional MRI have been increasingly impressive, but significant real-world applications are still years away.
One day, late in 2009, Shinji Nishimoto, Ph.D., a postdoctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley, lay still inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) unit—basically a room-sized, tube-shaped electromagnet—and watched a movie. The movie was just nine minutes long, but Nishimoto watched it again and again: ten times in all. While he watched, the fMRI machine recorded patterns of activity in his visual cortex. Later Nishimoto and his colleagues fed that fMRI data into a computer model—made from previous sessions of movie-watching—which output a reconstruction of the film. The reconstructed images were hazy, but accurate in their most basic features, and certainly looked like an initial proof of principle. “[D]ynamic brain activity measured under naturalistic conditions can be decoded using current fMRI technology,” they wrotein the journal Current Biology.
The feat came just a few years after French researchers described the first fMRI decoding of static images from brain activity. So the field was progressing swiftly, and its aim, apparently, was to devise powerful fMRI-based mind reading applications—or “brain decoding devices,” as Nishimoto and his colleagues termed them.
How long would it take fMRI researchers to demo an app to tap into dreams? Just two more years, as it turned out. This past May, a team from Kyoto, Japan reported in Science that their fMRI-based “[d]ecoding models trained on stimulus-induced brain activity in visual cortical areas showed accurate classification, detection, and identification of [dream] contents.”
Thus, even the dream state—what Freud considered the gateway to the subconscious and what we generally regard as one of the last redoubts of human privacy—now seems to be under siege from fMRI tech.
Should we be worried?