Scientists Use fMRI to Read Minds

By Ifeanyi Chijindu

Imagine a machine capable of probing into one’s innermost
thoughts or even able to predict an action before a person follows
through with it. While such musings seem made for science fiction,
German researcher John-Dylan Haynes is hard at work to make this a

Haynes, 36, studied psychology and philosophy while he attended
the University of Bremen, Germany. In 1997, he went into the
Institute of Psychology and Cognition Research to begin his Ph.D.
on the study of “neural correlates of visual awareness.”

Haynes now works for the Bernstein Center of Computational
Neuroscience in Germany where he and his research team plan to lead
the way into the future of neuroscience.

Their hope resides with fMRI technology or functioning magnetic
resonance imaging. The fMRI’s allow neuroscientists to view the
brain’s function.

According to an article on, fMRI imaging “[takes]
a series of images of the brain in quick succession and to
statistically analyze the images for differences among them.”

Neuroscientists often use these images to detect any functional
abnormalities within the brain, but now some scientists want to see
if they can use these images to pinpoint what a person is thinking
about or planning to do.

Haynes’ desire to analyze and measure free will merges his
philosophical leanings with hard science to bring forth a plethora
of metaphysical questions.

“Why do we shape intentions in this way or another way?,” Haynes
said in a statement made to Slate magazine in March 2007. “Your
wishes, your desires, your goals, your plans-that’s the core of
your identity [and] the best place to look for that core is in the
brain’s medial prefrontal cortex.”

The medial prefrontal cortex controls how our bodies initiate
and carry out willed movements according to Haynes.

Haynes’ experimental design consists of attempting to isolate
free will from other brain functions by placing his subjects within
a fMRI machine.

The subjects watched for the word “select” before they saw two
numbers. They could either subtract or add the two numbers. The
machine took a picture of their brain’s performance immediately
after they selected their preferred mathematical function.

Haynes’ use of fMRI to illustrate free will is considered
unconventional because he is the first to ever use fMRIs in this
fashion. Most scientists regard the current fMRI technology as a
vague technique at best when it comes to actually differentiating
human choice and motivation.

Cal Poly Biology Professor Lenard Troncale feels the notion of
mind reading may be possible, but not for hundreds of years given
the scientific limitations of fMRI.

“It [the Slate magazine article presentation of Haynes’ study]
is significantly misleading because it over exaggerates what the
MRI is actually capable of,” said Troncale.

Still, each subject of Haynes’ experiment took the test more
than 250 times in order for the computer to create a pattern from
which it could make its predictions. When the computer finally
received enough data to correlate a pattern, it predicted the right
answer 71percent of the time.

According to Troncale, the mistakes with the Haynes’ experiment
begin with the mind reading assumption in a highly contextual
experimental setting.

“They might be asking the question ‘what lights up in the brain
when you get angry,'” said Troncale. “It [The fMRI] is not telling
you what you can get angry at, it’s just saying what parts of the
brain are involved in the stimulus of anger.”

This forms the basis of Troncale’s disagreement with Haynes
claiming fMRI can accurately predict human thought and

“It’s not reading the mind at all,” said Troncale. “It’s just
associating certain activity levels in certain parts with the
processing of the ideas, but it doesn’t tell you what the ideas

However, despite Troncale’s opposition to Haynes’ theory, he
does believe MRI and fMRI technology will continue to benefit
society by providing scientific understanding. He just doesn’t
believe in misrepresenting the reality of science as we know

“[It’s] so far in the future being able to read thoughts (…)
we can never say it won’t [happen], but it won’t come out of these
developments [because they’re] just saying a certain part of the
brain is involved in processing a very limited context situation
(…) and it can’t say much more than that.”

Even after analyzing how futuristic mind reading machines really
seem, one can’t ignore serious ethical considerations such
technology implies.

Will these machines be used to alleviate criminal problems
before they start or will they to manipulate nations for power?

Third-year mathematics student and science fiction fan Roman
Selezinka prefers to see humanity in a positive light.

“I think the ability to read thoughts will bring more openness
into the society,” said Selezinka.

While some people choose to see our bodies as merely a fleshy
vessel where infinite cells constantly interact in only measurable
and observable ways, others believe our physicality is just one
part of various elements that makes us exquisitely human.

“I would like to think [our] thoughts are more than a reflection
of our organic chemical reactions [taking] place in our bodies,”
Selezinka said.

Ifeanyi Chijindu can be reached by e-mail at news or by phone at (909) 869-3747.

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