Unlocking the Power of the Mind


Vriti Saraf

Issue date: 10/6/08 Section: Science

The field of neuroscience is quickly expanding and emerging [sic] with technologies that are able to tap into the higher brain processes for functions only imaginable in the science fiction world.

The plans for two new kinds of brain caps have been released in the past week, one that harnesses a person's brain waves to translate them into verbal messages, and the other that allows subconscious creativity skills to surface.

The first kind of brain cap is being funded by the US Army, a $4 million project given to a horde of scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of California at Irvine, and the University of Maryland, overseen by Dr. Elmar Schmoozer, an Army neuroscientist.

The purpose of this brain cap, which will be transformed into a helmet for soldiers, is to enable voiceless communication in situations holding threat of a security risk. This "thought helmet" uses 128 electrodes to channel the soldier's brain waves, where they are picked up by an electroencephalogram (EEG) which measures the electrical activity, then transmits it to the receiving soldier's head phones as radio waves.

In order for this device to reap efficient usage, soldiers will need to be trained how to form clear, structured thoughts, similar to how they have been already trained to speak. The EEG, which will be calibrated to recognize unique mental patterns, will then be able to differentiate between a person's attempt to speak with others, and their own conscious thoughts. This helmet will "lead to direct mental control of military systems by thought alone," said Dr. Elmar Schmoozer.

According to the researchers working on this project, the messages relayed will first be heard as a robotic voice, but there is potential for the technology to transmit messages in the speaker's own voice, along with specifying their location relative to the receiver.

Although this thought helmet won't hit the market for many years, a similar, simpler technology will, by the summer of 2009.

Emotiv Systems, a technology company that focuses on human-machine dialogue, has created a headset for video games that detects the player's thoughts, emotions and expressions, then translates them into their character in the game.

This device, which will be sold for $299, can be wirelessly connected to most PC's and existing controllers, and allows the player to use brain waves to play the game.

The second kind of brain cap delves deeper into the subconscious. The 'thinking cap', developed by researchers at the Syndey University, uses a magnetic coil to send electrical impulses to the left side of the brain, which suppresses the functions temporarily, enhancing functions of the other parts.

According to Professor Allan Snyder, the chair of Science and the Mind at the University of Sydney, and who also happens to be a co-founder of Emotiv Systems, said that the left side of the brain stifles our ability to be conscious of the details that are involved in an action or decision and allows us to see the 'bigger picture'.

"When you make complex decisions, or even catch a cricket ball, you are not aware of how your brain is performing all these complex tasks", said Snyder. "My theory is that there is a lot happening and maybe you could see it by shutting off that conscious part of the brain."

In the experiments, volunteers were asked to engage in several different tasks, such as drawing, or editing written pieces. After their brains had been exposed to the thinking cap, also called transcranial magnetic stimulation, 4 out of the 11 volunteers produced much more realistic drawings, and others were able to point out more mistakes while editing.

This flash of detail-oriented brilliance lasted for an hour. Snyder believes, "that each of us has within us non-conscious machinery which can do extraordinary art, extraordinary memory and extraordinary mathematical calculations", and with this device, we may be able to tap into hidden talents.

These new technologies will undoubtedly entertain the masses, along with enabling scientists to dig deep into the brain.