A team of world-leading neuroscientists has developed a powerful
technique that allows them to look deep inside a person's brain
and read their intentions before they act.
The research breaks controversial new ground in scientists' ability
to probe people's minds and eavesdrop on their thoughts, and raises
serious ethical issues over how brain-reading technology may be
used in the future.
The team used high-resolution brain scans to identify patterns
of activity before translating them into meaningful thoughts,
revealing what a person planned to do in the near future. It is
the first time scientists have succeeded in reading intentions
in this way.
"Using the scanner, we could look around the brain for this
information and read out something that from the outside there's
no way you could possibly tell is in there. It's like shining a
torch around, looking for writing on a wall," said John-Dylan
Haynes at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain
Sciences in Germany, who led the study with colleagues at University
College London and Oxford University.
The research builds on a series of recent studies in which brain
imaging has been used to identify tell-tale activity linked to lying,
violent behaviour and racial prejudice.
The latest work reveals the dramatic pace at which neuroscience
is progressing, prompting the researchers to call for an urgent
debate into the ethical issues surrounding future uses for the
technology. If brain-reading can be refined, it could quickly
be adopted to assist interrogations of criminals and terrorists,
and even usher in a "Minority Report" era (as portrayed
in the Steven Spielberg science fiction film of that name), where
judgments are handed down before the law is broken on the strength
of an incriminating brain scan.
"These techniques are emerging and we need an ethical debate
about the implications, so that one day we're not surprised and
overwhelmed and caught on the wrong foot by what they can do.
These things are going to come to us in the next few years and
we should really be prepared," Professor Haynes told the
The use of brain scanners to judge whether people are likely
to commit crimes is a contentious issue that society should tackle
now, according to Prof Haynes. "We see the danger that this
might become compulsory one day, but we have to be aware that
if we prohibit it, we are also denying people who aren't going
to commit any crime the possibility of proving their innocence."
During the study, the researchers asked volunteers to decide
whether to add or subtract two numbers they were later shown on
Before the numbers flashed up, they were given a brain scan using
a technique called functional magnetic imaging resonance. The
researchers then used a software that had been designed to spot
subtle differences in brain activity to predict the person's intentions
with 70% accuracy.
The study revealed signatures of activity in a marble-sized part
of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex that changed
when a person intended to add the numbers or subtract them.
Because brains differ so much, the scientists need a good idea
of what a person's brain activity looks like when they are thinking
something to be able to spot it in a scan, but researchers are
already devising ways of deducing what patterns are associated
with different thoughts.
Barbara Sahakian, a professor of neuro-psychology at Cambridge
University, said the rapid advances in neuroscience had forced
scientists in the field to set up their own neuroethics society
late last year to consider the ramifications of their research.
"Do we want to become a 'Minority Report' society where
we're preventing crimes that might not happen?," she asked.
"For some of these techniques, it's just a matter of time.
It is just another new technology that society has to come to
terms with and use for the good, but we should discuss and debate
it now because what we don't want is for it to leak into use in
court willy nilly without people having thought about the consequences.
"A lot of neuroscientists in the field are very cautious
and say we can't talk about reading individuals' minds, and right
now that is very true, but we're moving ahead so rapidly, it's
not going to be that long before we will be able to tell whether
someone's making up a story, or whether someone intended to do
a crime with a certain degree of certainty."
Professor Colin Blakemore, a neuroscientist and director of the
Medical Research Council, said: "We shouldn't go overboard
about the power of these techniques at the moment, but what you
can be absolutely sure of is that these will continue to roll
out and we will have more and more ability to probe people's intentions,
minds, background thoughts, hopes and emotions.
"Some of that is extremely desirable, because it will help
with diagnosis, education and so on, but we need to be thinking
the ethical issues through. It adds a whole new gloss to personal
medical data and how it might be used."
The technology could also drive advances in brain-controlled
computers and machinery to boost the quality of life for disabled
people. Being able to read thoughts as they arise in a person's
mind could lead to computers that allow people to operate email
and the internet using thought alone, and write with word processors
that can predict which word or sentence you want to type . The
technology is also expected to lead to improvements in thought-controlled
wheelchairs and artificial limbs that respond when a person imagines
"You can imagine how tedious it is if you want to write
a letter by using a cursor to pick out letters on a screen,"
said Prof Haynes. "It would be much better if you thought,
'I want to reply to this email', or, 'I'm thinking this word',
and the computer can read that and understand what you want to
· FAQ: Mind reading
What have the scientists developed?
They have devised a system that analyses brain activity to work
out a person's intentions before they have acted on them. More
advanced versions may be able to read complex thoughts and even
pick them up before the person is conscious of them.
How does it work?
The computer learns unique patterns of brain activity or signatures
that correspond to different thoughts. It then scans the brain
to look for these signatures and predicts what the person is thinking.
How could it be used?
It is expected to drive advances in brain-controlled computers,
leading to artificial limbs and machinery that respond to thoughts.
More advanced versions could be used to help interrogate criminals
and assess prisoners before they are released. Controversially,
they may be able to spot people who plan to commit crimes before
they break the law.
What is next?
The researchers are honing the technique to distinguish between
passing thoughts and genuine intentions.