UW team links two human brains for question-and-answer experiment

via University of Washington
via University of Washington

Imagine a question-and-answer game played by two people who are not in the same place and not talking to each other. Round after round, one player asks a series of questions and accurately guesses the object the other is thinking about.

Sci-fi? Mind-reading superpowers? Not quite.

University of Washington researchers recently 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, detailed today in PLOS ONE, 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.

“This is the most complex brain-to-brain experiment, I think, that’s been done to date in humans,” said lead author Andrea Stocco, an assistant professor of psychology and a researcher at UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

“It uses conscious experiences through signals that are experienced visually, and it requires two people to collaborate,” Stocco said.

Here’s how it works: The first participant, or “respondent,” wears a cap connected to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine that records electrical brain activity. The respondent is shown an object (for example, a dog) on a computer screen, and the second participant, or “inquirer,” sees a list of possible objects and associated questions. With the click of a mouse, the inquirer sends a question and the respondent answers “yes” or “no” by focusing on one of two flashing LED lights attached to the monitor, which flash at different frequencies.

A “no” or “yes” answer both send a signal to the inquirer via the Internet and activate a magnetic coil positioned behind the inquirer’s head. But only a “yes” answer generates a response intense enough to stimulate the visual cortex and cause the inquirer to see a flash of light known as a “phosphene.” The phosphene — which might look like a blob, waves or a thin line — is created through a brief disruption in the visual field and tells the inquirer the answer is yes. Through answers to these simple yes or no questions, the inquirer identifies the correct item.

The experiment was carried out in dark rooms in two UW labs located almost a mile apart and involved five pairs of participants, who played 20 rounds of the question-and-answer game. Each game had eight objects and three questions that would solve the game if answered correctly. The sessions were a random mixture of 10 real games and 10 control games that were structured the same way.

The researchers took steps to ensure participants couldn’t use clues other than direct brain communication to complete the game. Inquirers wore earplugs so they couldn’t hear the different sounds produced by the varying stimulation intensities of the “yes” and “no” responses. Since noise travels through the skull bone, the researchers also changed the stimulation intensities slightly from game to game and randomly used three different intensities each for “yes” and “no” answers to further reduce the chance that sound could provide clues.

The researchers also repositioned the coil on the inquirer’s head at the start of each game, but for the control games, added a plastic spacer undetectable to the participant that weakened the magnetic field enough to prevent the generation of phosphenes. Inquirers were not told whether they had correctly identified the items, and only the researcher on the respondent end knew whether each game was real or a control round.

“We took many steps to make sure that people were not cheating,” Stocco said.

Participants were able to guess the correct object in 72 percent of the real games, compared with just 18 percent of the control rounds.

Incorrect guesses in the real games could be caused by several factors, the most likely being uncertainty about whether a phosphene had appeared.

Read more: UW team links two human brains for question-and-answer experiment

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