Breakthroughs in neuroscience could allow us to peer into our own minds like never before.
What does a memory look like as it’s forming? That’s been one of the most fascinating and elusive questions facing neuroscientists, who have been using various imaging techniques for years to try to determine the physical basis of human thought. Memories are particularly tricky because of their fleeting nature. Now a group of researchers at the University of Oregon have figured out how to use Electroencephalography (EEG), a method of investigating the brain that isn’t usually known for its spatial precision, to tap into short-term memories as they form.
Though we’re still years away from being able to put such technologies into the hands of consumers, it’s not hard to imagine a future device that could log and categorize your memories according to when and how they were formed. A note-taking technique that requires no words may be upon us – but is it what we want?
EEG measures voltage fluctuations resulting from the flow of ionic currents between neurons in the brain. It is most often used to diagnose epilepsy, but it also provides a non-invasive way of observing the brain’s electrical activity over a short period of time, usually 20-40 minutes, which is perfect for short-term memory. The University of Oregon study focused on alpha frequency brainwaves, which is associated with the activity of the occipital lobe (the brain’s visual processing center) during wakeful relaxation with closed eyes. Participants in the experiment viewed and attempted to hold within memory an angled bar located within a circle. By monitoring alpha rhythms, researchers were able to decode what angle the bar was being held at for each individual and subsequently determine which individuals could store memory with the greatest quality and precision.
Aside from the fact that researchers were actually able to infer all this information from EEG, one of the other breakthroughs displayed by this research is this technique’s ability to pick on brain activity almost in real time. Research methods besides EEG, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), are not only expensive, they also don’t have the temporal precision to pick up fleeting signatures in brain activity.
PSFK spoke with principal investigator Ed Awh, and he thinks that monitoring the brain in this way could “potentially be very useful for human-computer interaction of all sorts.” Many of his ideas involved computer control of the brain, a scary concept for some. “One key for using ‘brain-control’ interfaces (that do not require physical movements of the limbs) is to have a robust mapping between brain states that the individual can control and the “commands” that the individual would like to communicate. The more distinct brain states that the individual can reliably generate, the richer the possibility is for a useful interface with a device like a computer or prosthetic device.” Future brain-tech interfaces are all about our state of mind, apparently.