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Mind-reading machine knows what you see

It is possible to read someone's mind by remotely measuring their brain activity, researchers have shown. The technique can even extract information from subjects that they are not aware of themselves.

So far, it has only been used to identify visual patterns a subject can see or has chosen to focus on. But the researchers speculate the approach might be extended to probe a person's awareness, focus of attention, memory and movement intention. In the meantime, it could help doctors work out if patients apparently in a coma are actually conscious.

Scientists have already trained monkeys to move a robotic arm with the power of thought and to recreate scenes moving in front of cats by recording information directly from the feline's neurons (New Scientist print edition, 2 October 1999). But these processes involve implanting electrodes into their brains to hook them up to a computer.

Now Yukiyasu Kamitani, at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, and Frank Tong at Princeton University in New Jersey, US, have achieved similar "mind reading" feats remotely using functional MRI scanning.

In a separate study, also published in Nature Neuroscience, John-Dylan Haynes and Geraint Rees at University College London, UK, showed two patterns in quick succession to 6 volunteers. The first appeared for just 15 milliseconds - too quick to be consciously perceived by the viewer.

But by viewing fMRI images of the brain, the researchers were able to say which image had been flashed in front of the subjects. The information was perceived in the brain even if the volunteers were not consciously aware of it.

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