Monday, April 25, 2005

It May Be Stupid, But It's Eville

BBC News today intones credulously that two new studies show scientists can 'read a person's unconscious thoughts' by functional MRI of the brain.

In one of the studies, Japanese researchers showed subjects stripes tilted in different directions, and detected different brain activity patterns that enabled them to predict which stripes had been shown. 'When volunteers were shown a plaid pattern made up of two different sets of stripes but asked to pay attention to only one set, the program was able to tell which one the subjects were thinking about.'

According to one of the scientists in the other study, 'This is the first basic step to reading somebody's mind. If our approach could be expanded upon, it might be possible to predict what someone was thinking or seeing from their brain activity alone.' Mm, yeah. If you already had a library of response patterns to everything they might possibly be thinking or seeing to match against.

Even more thrilling, Dr. Adrian Burgess, from the department of cognitive neuropsychology at Imperial College London, claims 'it might be possible to dip into people's repressed memories or even see people's hidden fears and phobias.' Sure, if they have a phobia of, say, horizontal stripes.

This is what happens when research scientists feel pressure to make their work relevant to the practical world. Instead of saying, 'Hey look! We can figure out from an MRI if someone's looking at horizontal or vertical stripes! Well done us!' and then moving on to the challenge of circle-perception, they get all messianic and wave their arms and start shouting about how they've created a device that will enable man in just a few short, amply-grant-funded years to o'erleap the bounds of his current stripe-directionality purblindness and achieve Total Mind Transparency. It's sad, and silly.

But ok, suppose it actually worked. Does anyone besides John Ashcroft think being able to forcibly read people's hidden thoughts by MRI is a good thing?

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