Professor X-Style Telepathy Might Not Be as Impossible as We Once Thought

Researchers have connected three human brains.

Marvel Comics / New X-Men Vol 1 #138

The power to read someone’s mind has long been relegated to the fictional universes of comic books. But the march toward tech-enabled brain-to-brain communication has been gaining momentum for some time.

Most recently, a team neuroscientists showed they could successfully connect the brains of three people using an interface they’ve dubbed BrainNet. BrainNet even worked well enough for their subjects to play a round of telepathic Tetris, where two “senders” shared their thoughts with a “receiver” that rotated each block according to the signals they received. On average, five groups were able to achieve 81.25 percent accuracy. A B-minus isn’t bad for the first trial run of technology that could one day turn humans in to mind-reading Dr. X’s.

“Our results raise the possibility of future brain-to-brain interfaces that enable cooperative problem solving by humans using a ‘social network’ of connected brains,” write the University of Washington researchers.

This was made possible by combining two existing technologies, electroencephalography (EEG) — to record brain signals — and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to transfer them, the team explained in a paper currently awaiting peer review. This requires a lot of wiring, so it’s not full-fletched telepathy just yet. But think about it like an extremely early model of Cerebro, the fictional device that expands Prof. X’s telepathy to find other mutants around the world.

Architecture of BrainNet

Linxing Jiang, Andrea Stocco, Darby M. Losey, Justin A. Abernethy, Chantel S. Prat, Rajesh P. N. Rao

The senders were hooked up to EEG electrodes and could see the entirety of the game screen. To signal if the receiver should turn the block, the senders had to look at one of two LED lights on either side of the screen. This produced distinct brain signals that were picked up by the electrodes and delivered to the receiver wearing a TMS head cap, which translated them into spots of light in their mind, known as phosphenes.

The receiver was able to decipher these phosphenes into useful advice most of the time. If a flash of light was present, the receiver would turn, and if there was no light then the block would not be rotated. Of course, this is a pretty long way from telepathy, but it shows how this type of communication might some day be possible.

In essence, this experiment was akin to transferring one bit of information per interaction, basically a yes or a no binary option. But expanding the rate of data transfer in the future could one day let humans move past typing and tapping with technology and let us interact with computers directly with our minds.

Examples of Screens seen by the Receiver and the Senders across Two Rounds. While the Receiver see the three example screens on the left side, the Senders see the screens on the right side.

Linxing Jiang, Andrea Stocco, Darby M. Losey, Justin A. Abernethy, Chantel S. Prat, Rajesh P. N. Rao

“A cloud-based [brain-to-brain interface] server could direct information transmission between any set of devices on the [brain-to-brain interface] network and make it globally operable through the Internet, thereby allowing cloud-based interactions between brains on a global scale,” states the paper. “The pursuit of such brain-to-brain interfaces has the potential to not only open new frontiers in human communication and collaboration but also provide us with a deeper understanding of the human brain.”

Professor X’s super powers don’t seem all that science fiction anymore.

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