In the upcoming movie Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a criminal with the technology to project himself into the dreams of others. The circumstances of the film seem utter fantasy – amazing special effects are a big part of the movie. Yet the proposed technology may be rooted in real science being explored today. fMRIs, EEGs, and CT scans are all being used to ‘read’ and even influence the brain. In their current incarnations these technologies are ill-suited to achieving the infiltration of dreams, but the fundamental science they examine could be setting the stage for exactly that. Watch the two full length trailers below to see the film’s visually stunning take on the possibility of invading someone’s mind. While you’re marveling at the imagery ask yourself: is the technology of today putting us on a path towards the world of Inception?
The basic premise of Inception, that a device would allow you to connect to a virtual environment composed by someone’s dreams, relies on two fundamental (and as yet undeveloped) technologies: 1) a means of reading the images, emotions, and sounds creating by the brain, and 2) a means of inputing data into the brain in such a way as to have it appear in the subject’s thoughts. Using these two mythical technologies you could write and read someone’s dreams or connect multiple minds together (in or out of a dream state). Both are very difficult requirements to meet, but the first is much closer to reality than the latter.
We’ve seen many different ways in which scientists are able to use current brain-scanning technologies to explore human thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. If you’ll forgive the dumping of self-referential links, here is a quick summary of the research currently underway:
fMRI is perhaps the most extensively used tool in current efforts of exploring the brain. Researchers have found they can use fMRI to predict some changes in behavior, match images to what your eyes are looking at, and communicate with patients in a permanent vegetative state. There is further research into if fMRIs could provide insight into when someone is lying, and how to distinguish between individuals based on brain activity. EEG scanners are much more portable systems and are available commercially. They have been used to understand which parts of the brain are being used to process an image, and this information can help categorize what you are looking at. Electrodes wired directly into the brain, such as those seen with Braingate, can read neuron signals and translate these into action, or even give a better understanding of what part of the brain is used for different tasks (such as language processing). Direct electrode connections have even had some success in translating brain activity into spoken words.
All of these attempts at ‘reading’ someone’s mind are still in the very preliminary stages. The most reliable use of brain-scanning technology is probably the use of an EEG scan to allow people with decayed motor skills to type on a computer. That’s pretty basic stuff. In fact, spatial and temporal resolution for fMRI and EEGs suggest that these technologies (in their current form) simply won’t have the capabilities of reading the brain precisely and quickly enough to ever be used to successfully connect someone’s mind to a machine. Electrodes may be much faster and more precise in some cases, but there’s a practical limit in how many wires one can place inside the brain without causing widespread damage. At least for now.
Taken collectively, these projects show that science is very interested in exploring the brain, and will likely continue to develop new means of charting its activities. Even with just the devices available today there is much more of our thinking organ that we can understand. That insight is likely to lead to being able to read the mind of a subject, at least to some degree.
Of course, while scientists are still struggling to ‘read’ the mind they haven’t even really begun to ‘write’ on it. The most reliable means of influencing the brain is still through direct stimulation of the senses. Instead of machines that place images in your mind, we are likely to first have sophisticated means of placing images in your eyes. Virtual reality goggles, and headphones may be the better bet of influencing the brain in the short term. (In fact, looking at the trailers for Inception, it’s unclear how much of the workings of DiCaprio’s unnamed device may involve some sort of VR headgear.) There have been some cases of scientists inducing emotions in patients via electromagnetic stimulation (the so-called God Helmet is perhaps the most famous example) but we’re unlikely to perfect these until well after we better understand how to read activity in the brain.
So could Inception become a reality? We’re certainly working towards it. In addition to all the research I mentioned above, the XPrize foundation is considering a reward for the next generation of brain computer interfaces. The BlueBrain Project is working on creating a full scale simulation of a brain to be used as a pharmacological and neurological tool. In the next few decades we could have the means to understand, perhaps in rather detailed terms, what a person is thinking. Once that barrier is passed we may develop the means to influence what someone thinks by directly stimulating their brain. For now Inception is simply a cool looking bit of science fiction. We should remember, however, that while the mind is still a very mysterious place, it may not remain that way forever.
[image credit: WikiCommons]
[source: Warner Bros]