Researchers Link Human Brains for Questions and Answers Game

University of Washington researchers used a direct brain-to-brain connection to enable pairs of participants to play a question-and-answer game by transmitting signals from one brain to the other over the Internet. The experiment is thought to be the first to show that two brains can be directly linked to allow one person to guess what’s on another person’s mind.

The research is published in PLOS ONE with the title “Playing 20 Questions with the Mind: Collaborative Problem Solving by Humans Using a Brain-to-Brain Interface.” The research paper is freely available online.

Lead author Andrea Stocco, an assistant professor of psychology and a researcher at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, said:

This is the most complex brain-to-brain experiment, I think, that’s been done to date in humans. It uses conscious experiences through signals that are experienced visually, and it requires two people to collaborate.

Direct Brain to Brain Transmission of Information and Mental States

University of Washington - BBIIn the right picture, postdoctoral student Caitlin Hudac wears a cap that uses transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMG) to deliver brain signals from the other participant. In the top picture, graduate student Jose Ceballos wears an electroencephalography (EEG) cap that records brain activity and sends a response to a second participant over the Internet.

“We present, to our knowledge, the first demonstration that a non-invasive brain-to-brain interface (BBI) can be used to allow one human to guess what is on the mind of another human through an interactive question-and-answering paradigm similar to the ’20 Questions’ game,” note the researchers. “Our interface uses electroencephalography (EEG) to detect specific patterns of brain activity from one participant (the “respondent”), and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to deliver functionally-relevant information to the brain of a second participant (the ‘inquirer’).”

Participants in the experiment successfully identify a “mystery item” using a true/false question-answering protocol similar to the “20 Questions” game. The researchers emphasize that their experiment demonstrated the possibility of real-time brain-to-brain communications in a cooperative task, in which the inquirer and respondent must exchange information bi-directionally and in real-time to collaboratively solve the task.

“They have to interpret something they’re seeing with their brains,” said co-author Chantel Prat, a faculty member at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences and an associate professor of psychology. “It’s not something they’ve ever seen before.” Stocco added:

What we are doing [is] taking signals from the brain and with minimal translation, putting them back in another person’s brain.

With $1 million funding from a W.M. Keck Foundation grant, the researchers will explore the possibilities of “brain tutoring,” knowledge transfer from teacher to pupil, and the direct transmission of brain states.

“Our current efforts are aimed at increasing the complexity of information transmitted through human BBIs [Brain to Brain Interfaces], such as the transmission of affective states and other types of information that would be otherwise difficult to verbalize,” note the researchers. “Under these circumstances, larger amounts of information could potentially be transferred, and a BBI would confer a distinct advantage over canonical, symbolic means of communication. We see this as an exciting venue for future research.”

Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is persuaded that we will become telepathic species. In a recent public questions and answers online session on Facebook, Zuckerberg said that the technology of social networks like Facebook will, someday, become so advanced that people will be able to exchange thoughts directly, brain to brain, just like we exchange pictures of cats today. This development seems an important step toward realizing Zuckerberg’s vision.

Images from University of Washington.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.