Physicists and neuroscientists have developed the world’s first “brain-to-brain” network, using electroencephalograms (EEGs), which record electrical activity in the brain, and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which can transmit information into the brain, to allow people to communicate directly with each other’s brains — a new and thrilling (and a little terrifying?) example of science fiction brought to life.
Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle announced last week that they successfully used their interface, which they call BrainNet, to have a small group of people play a collaborative “Tetris-like” game — with their minds.
“Our results raise the possibility of future brain-to-brain interfaces that enable cooperative problem-solving by humans using a ‘social network’ of connected brains,” they say.
To demonstrate that their network works, researchers set up a game with two people who could see falling blocks on a screen and the field at the bottom that they needed to fit into, determining whether they needed to be rotated. They sent signals to a receiver, who could only see the top of the screen, so they could see the blocks but not whether they needed to be rotated, relying on signals from the senders. The receiver was in another room to prevent any conventional communication, and used the information from the senders to decide how to play each new piece.
The senders were able to alter the electrical signals in their brains picked up by EEGs by looking at either 15 hz or 17 hz LED lights on either side of the screen, and the receiver either received a flash of light through the TMS to indicate ‘rotate’ or no flash of light to indicate ‘do not rotate.’ Or, more accurately, they experience “the sensation of seeing a flash of light,” which is actually a magnetic pulse transmitted to the occipital cortex.
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Five groups of three participants played 16 rounds each of the game this way, with an average accuracy of 81.25 percent.
The so-called “social network” of brains is clearly still in very rudimentary stages, with only binary “rotate” and “do not rotate” (“yes” and “no”) signals available for now, but remember how quickly we went from Myspace and LiveJournal to Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat? If they’re able to send blinking lights and play Tetris now, who knows what we’ll able to communicate through electrodes and brain waves in a few more years. Researchers are already talking about how to expand, saying that the current implementation “can be readily scaled up to include multiple Senders,” and how to move this network out of the lab and onto the Internet.
“A cloud-based brain-to-brain interface server could direct information transmission between any set of devices on the brain-to-brain interface network and make it globally operable through the Internet, thereby allowing cloud-based interactions between brains on a global scale,” the researchers wrote in their findings. “The pursuit of such brain-to-brain interfaces has the potential to not only open new frontiers in human communication and collaboration but also provide us with a deeper understanding of the human brain.”