The thinking behind the first ‘Vulcan mind meld’

Video: Kate Lunau on the first human brain-to-brain interface

On Aug. 12, Andrea Stocco and Rajesh Rao, colleagues at the University of Washington, sat in their labs on either side of campus. Both wore unusually elaborate headgear: Rao was hooked to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, which reads the brain’s electrical activity. And Stocco had his head squeezed into a purple swim cap, with a brain-stimulating coil above his left motor cortex, which controls hand movement. (The swim cap was there simply to mark the targeted spot on his head.) Rao was playing a video game. Preparing to fire a cannon at a target, he imagined moving his right hand—but stayed still. It was Stocco, almost 2.5 km away, who involuntarily twitched his right hand to push the spacebar trigger.

Scientists have previously shown brain-to-brain communication between two rats, and from a human to a rat; Rao and Stocco’s experiment is believed to be the first non-invasive human-to-human brain interface, ever. In what Stocco has jokingly called a “Vulcan mind meld,” his colleague controlled his hand motions through brain signals sent over the Internet. “We could have been anywhere in the world,” Stocco says, “and it would have worked roughly the same way.” Stocco underwent no training to prepare to receive the signal; wearing noise-cancellation earphones, with his back turned to the computer screen, “I had no idea what was going on,” he says. “I could feel my hand move, but nothing else.”

This technology should have real-world applications, Stocco says, such as enabling a doctor to lead the hand of a would-be surgeon in an emergency. “Firefighters who don’t have medical training could be guided to do a procedure that would save a life.” If a pilot became incapacitated, a non-expert could be coaxed to help land a plane. Beyond that, patients with disabilities, like those who’ve suffered from a stroke, might be able to take advantage of this for rehabilitation.

Before undertaking the experiment, Rao and Stocco had to take a hard look at its ethical implications. But this technology couldn’t be used for sinister forms of mind control, Stocco says.

“Current technology requires the [subject] to be absolutely compliant,” he says. “We don’t have a technology available that could modify your conscious thought.”

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