More often than not, words just complicate things. What if our brains could communicate directly with each other, bypassing the need for language? This is the question being asked by University of Washington scientists who are busy working on a real-life incarnation of the Vulcan mind meld.
Brain-to-brain interfacing made its debut back in 2013, but in the upcoming special, Brain Surgery Live with Mental Floss, set to air on National Geographic Channel Sunday, Oct. 25 at 9 p.m. EST, you’ll get to peek into the lab to learn more about this futuristic tech, how far it’s come, and where it’s going.
The brain interface relies on transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which allows for the stimulation of specific regions in the brain. Because brief magnetic pulses can induce electric fields, and hence currents, in the body, if they’re calibrated correctly, they can be picked up by a target brain region. This is much like how traditional electric brain stimulation works, only TMS is completely pain-free — magnetic pulses can easily penetrate the skull.
You can think of brain-linking like sending directions to a friend via email. The sending participant thinks about moving, and those “instructions” are picked up by an electro-sensory cap on his or her head. The cap (acting like the computer) sends the instructions to a TMS cap on the receiver’s head, which “downloads” the instructions, and sends a magnetic pulse. That pulse can trigger an action, say the twitch of a hand, in the receiver’s body. LLAP.
Interestingly, when it comes to brain games, not all players are created equal. Initial tests found varying amounts of accuracy between different pairs of people. While some only made the connection 25 percent of the time, other pairs managed 83 percent accuracy. Looks like you do need to find a good partner for the drift.
The hope is that the project could eventually lead to “brain tutoring,” in which knowledge is transferred directly from brain-to-brain. “Imagine someone who’s a brilliant scientist but not a brilliant teacher,” writes UW assistant professor of psychology Chantel Prat. “Complex knowledge is hard to explain – we’re limited by language.” It sounds far-fetched, but the latest version of UW’s interface is already being used to transmit the answers to “yes,” or “no” questions.
As if taking a dive into life as a Vulcan wasn’t enough, Sunday’s special will also air a live, conscious, deep brain surgery. This is the same technique that helped renowned violinist Roger Frisch get his life back after a tremor threatened to end his career. “We’re offering a real-time look into the center of a living brain that we hope will illuminate and teach, as well as tell a story that is unforgettable,” said National Geographic president Tim Pastore in a press release.
Terrifying as it sounds, keeping patients awake during brain surgery gives medical teams the unmatched ability to “map” important brain regions and monitor motor control as they go. In Frisch’s case, he was able to practice his craft during the operation, allowing the team to see when they’d stopped the tremor in his hand. “By partnering with National Geographic and Mental Floss, we hope to demystify brain surgery, diminishing the fear and stigma of this operation,” says University Hospitals Case Medical Center neurosurgeon Dr. Jonathan Miller, who will be operating during the special.
You can follow along and ask questions using #BrainSurgeryLive, or by following National Geographic Channel, Mental Floss, University Hospitals Case Medical Center, and badass “Talk Nerdy” podcaster Cara Santa Maria, who will (squee) be co-hosting.
“Deep brain stimulation procedures are changing lives in hospitals all across the world,” adds Will Pearson, co-founder of Mental Floss. “From the history of the brain to the revolutionary progress ahead in neuroscience, we’re going to give a truly mind-bending look at the brain, providing viewers with a deeper understanding of their gray matter.”
IMAGES: National Geographic, Mental Floss