The Mind’s Eye


The image to the right of the word neuron was taken from someone’s brain.

To be a bit more specific an individual looked at the black and white image of the word neuron (see the top image) while receiving an fMRI brain scan. A computer then crunched through the data from the scan and produced the series of slightly garbled images. The images are not of an incredible resolution but nonetheless they still show clearly the image that the individual tested was looking at. Thus in a very real way the researchers were able to produce a physical picture of a mental image.

This story broke back in December but it’s so impressive it’s worth mentioning three months later.

What’s less impressive is how this study was reported in the press. With journalists typically jumping to the most extreme predictions about where this technology could lead. To understand why most predictions are hyperbole however you need to look into the research itself a bit deeper.

For a start, the images to the right where not collected by simply feeding one fMRI into a computer and getting it to uncrunch what the individual was looking at. Instead, to get the computer to be able to correctly uncrunch the data literally hours had to be spent calibrating it to that particular subject. This involved scans being taken while the subject involved looked at hundreds of similar black and white images and even then the final product while impressive is hardly crystal clear. Yet despite the painstaking process involved- requiring the subjects full cooperation (they have to think about the image) and which could only be used on simple black and white images when all other stimulus was removed- journalists were quick to declare that dream recording software was just around the corner. It’s not. 

This doesn’t mean I believe speculation about potential future technologies which will allow us to explore our mental worlds should be off limits but I think portraying the research above alongside discussions about the ethical implications of reading a persons mind through a quick scan is rather misleading. What the research is a great example of is how science is slowly peeling back the barriers preventing us from being able to examine subjective experience in a more objective way. The old refrain that you can never see the world through anothers eyes is still true for now but it’s looking less certain like this will always be the case.

Yukiyami Kamitani is the lead researcher behind this study.

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