Brain-Scanning Headset Can Read Your Mind

April 23, 2013

Being consistently productive can be a strain. The brain is already under a constant onslaught of incoming information from the immediate environment, not to mention an incredible bombardment of content from the Internet. Social networking updates, emails, scheduled reminders, new tech articles, bells, whistles -- all sorts of distractions can easily take someone's focus away from work. If technology is an extension of our immediate capabilities, how can we use it to combat the very information overload caused by it?

Evan Peck suggests that we use computers to monitor our brain activity and help filter out unnecessary information. He and classmates at Tufts University are developing a brain-scanning headset intended to "supercharge the way you consume information." The technology was recently shown at the fourth annual Augmented Human conference.

The non-invasive system uses a neuroimaging technique known as functional near-infrared spectroscopy. It beams infrared light at the brain's prefrontal cortex and monitors the light's interaction with hemoglobin, the oxygen-transporting protein found in red blood cells. Hemoglobin comes in two states: oxygenated or deoxygenated. The headset calculates the ratio of oxygenated to deoxygenated hemoglobin. The system uses this information as a direct correlation to the amount of work, or intent focus, being performed by the brain.

The system was tested on subjects who rated movies on the IMDB website. Their brain activity was then compared with whether they submitted a positive or negative review. That information was used to recommend new movies to be rated. Amazingly enough, the ratings improved significantly the more the system was used. It was adapting to the subjects' ratings.

Other researchers have begun to implement this technology in new applications. Ben Willems of the Federal Aviation Administration hopes to use a similar system to help air traffic controllers with their stressful jobs. In this setup, radar systems would automatically reroute flight paths according to the amount of traffic the flight controller would observe on screen. More traffic means more brain activity. Erin Solovey of MIT is adapting the technology to study human cognitive response to in-vehicle features.

We essentially have a device nearly capable of reading our minds built by our minds for our minds. The implications of such a device are rather extraordinary in filtering our perception of our environment -- removing all the junk information to keep us focused on a specific task. This system could even be used to auto-adjust what is perceived according to subjective taste. This is probably the best thing to happen to productivity in a long time. It will be interesting to see what this technology will bring.

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