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Studying the Brain

E. DESFILIS/ROBINSON & BERRIDGE LAB . 25/04/2013 The tools neuroscientists have nowadays enable them to set goals which were just science fiction only two decades go

VALENCIA. The tools neuroscientists have nowadays enable them to set goals which were just science fiction only two decades go. Everyday we are a step closer to achieve objectives like «mind reading» or « mind manipulation». Although we are still far from deciphering the most complex thoughts and memories, the progress shown in recent years is tremendous.

The increasing accuracy in neuroimaging techniques, combined with the development of increasingly sophisticated computational model techniques (computational neuroscience has spread rapidly), is making this possible.

In the last five years, researchers have published studies in which they decode images (either fixed or in motion) seen by people. They do so by using appropriate software that registers brain activity at the moment the subject is watching those images.

For this purpose, they had previously taught the computer to relate activation patterns in the visual cortex -registered with fMRI scans obtained from different individuals- with the images that produce this activation.

Afterwards, the computer is capable of reproducing the images an individual is seeing by reading the activation patterns in his or her visual cortex as shown in the fMRI scan. Right now the image resolution1 is not a very good one, but we can recognise whether the subject is seeing a talking person, a landscape or a text.

Curiously enough, some texts appear over the image reproduced while these do not appear in the videos shown to the subjects of the experiment. Nobody knows where these words come from -probably they are only noise caused by methodological limitations, but it is extremely appealing to think that the subject's visual cortex is representing -visualising- the words that make up his or her chain of thought. In this case we would be fairly closer to, literally, «mind reading».

Similar studies focus on hearing and language. In this case the computer is capable of decoding brain waves, registered by electrodes, and reproducing the words a person is listening to. Other research projects have gone a step further and have been able to detect whether a memory is real or not. Others have even been capable of knowing the decision someone is going to make (if he or she pushes a button either on the left or on the right) a few seconds before he or she is aware if having made the decision. Results of the later experiment -carried out by doctor John Dylan Haynes' research group- suggest that the feeling of awareness of our acts may only be an illusion and our brain makes most of our decisions (if not all of them) before we are aware of them.

This only confirms what most neuroscientists have been claiming for decades: «we are our brain». Humans tend to think of themselves in a dualistic way: we think a conscious self inhabits a body that possesses a brain. Neuroscience is providing data in favour of identifying the self and the brain. These data are shaking the foundations of some deep-rooted ideas about consciousness (which may not be the subject of an action but a mere observer), reasoning, decision-making and ultimately morality and free will.

Precisely research on the neural mechanisms involved in decision-making has developed dramatically in recent years. It has even emerged as a new discipline within neuroscience (an economy) -neuroeconomy. Neuroeconomy studies the human brain while it makes economic decisions.

For this purpose, researchers register brain activity, using neuroimaging techniques or an electroencephalogram, while experimental subjects play games where they must make decisions that entail economic loss or gain (by playing, for instance, the «Ultimatum Game»). Results of this study show the strong influence our emotions have in decision-making. When reason and emotion come into conflict with each other, healthy people are driven by emotion.

The interest this kind of research arouses is easily understood if we think about its possible applications to marketing. In fact, a new applied discipline called neuromarketing has emerged. Neuormarketing studies the effects publicity has on the human brain with the intention of being able to predict and manipulate the consumer's behaviour.

Full text available at Mètode's website.

Ester Desfilis. Psicobiologist, Experimental Medicine Department. University of Lleida (UdL)
Photo: Mike JF Robinson / Berridge Lab

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