We’re probably still centuries away from the evolutionary leap that would awaken our latent psychic abilities, but scientists are tirelessly working on making use of the technology we do have now to make a fraction of science fiction a reality. Researchers from the University of Washington have been working on a brain-to-brain interface since for quite a few years now and they have just announced their new network, BrainNet, which could form the basis of a “social network” of connected brains.
Don’t get too carried away yet with what that image may convey. For one, BrainNet only supports up to three concurrently connected brains, but lead researcher Andrea Stocco assures that the technology is scalable. In fact, the only limit, he says, is the number of devices available to be worn.
BrainNet doesn’t read thoughts the way you’d imagine telepaths can. Instead, it makes use of already established devices and neuroscience theories to transmit discrete but limited signals to and from brains. In particular, it uses electroencephalograms or EEGs to “read” brain signals and transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS to feed those signals into the brain.
The theory behind it is simple and may seem crude to those expecting science fiction made real. It revolves around our brains’ ability to change the electrical signal it produces depending on what they see. Watch a light strobing at 15 Hz long enough and the brain will start sending electrical signals at that frequency. Switch your attention to a 17 Hz flashing light and so will the brain. With a TMS, the brain can be manipulated to “see” a flash of light called a phosphene.
In the case of BrainNet, three people are made to wear caps with EEGs and TMSs. Actually, only one of them has a cap that has both, making that user’s “thoughts” bidirectional. The other two can only send signals received by the third. The researchers used a simplified version of Tetris where the “senders” look at a 15 Hz flashing light to transmit whether to rotate a falling block or not, in which case the light is ignored. The receiver will see a flash or not, directing him or her to rotate the piece or leave it as is.
It’s a very simple system with very limited bandwidth, just one “bit” (yes or no) per instruction. Stocco is confident, however, that this is just the beginning. And since BrainNet could even use something like the Internet to transmit signals, it could even be the foundation of a cloud-based brain-to-brain social network of the future.