How Yale Scientists Are Trying to Read Minds

Apr 10, 2014

New research is using brain data to reconstruct images of facial memories.
Credit digitalbob8/flickr creative commons

New research out of Yale University is claiming clairvoyance. It's called "neuroimaging," a fancy way of saying scientists are reading your mind.

"What people actually see are real faces. What we generate are our guesses."
Marvin Chun

"If you see any kind of futuristic movie where they have these brain scanners, and they're reading out people's thoughts, that is kind of what we're doing," said Marvin Chun, professor of psychology and neurobiology at Yale.

Chun recently teamed up with Brice Kuhl and a former undergraduate student, Alan Cowen, who presented him with an interesting question: is it possible to reconstruct a face using nothing more than someone's memory?

To try to accomplish this, the team did two things. They built up a library of "brain data," showing test subjects 300 different "training faces," and recording brain activity elicited by each. 

An fMRI brain scan.
Credit Nathanial Burton-Bradford / Creative Commons

Then, they built up a database of "face data," projecting the "training faces" onto computer models called "eigenfaces."

Chun said, "They're basically mathematical descriptions, or summaries, of different facial features, [or] what we would call components."

A diagram shows how Marvin Chun's neuroimaging process works.
Credit NeuroImage

In the study, published in the March edition of the journal NeuroImage, Chun's team next showed test subjects new faces. He used his brain and face data to predict and reconstruct the image locked inside the viewer's mind.

Think of him as a really tech-savvy police sketch artist. "What people actually see are real faces," Chun said. "What we generate are our guesses -- our pictures of faces that we think are most closely-matched to what we think people were looking at."

Chun said the study has a lot of immediate practical implications, like helping scientists better understand how the brains of autistic children, and people with face blindness, work. There are also long-term implications: help police develop sketches of suspects, or reconstruct an image seen only in a dream. 

Then there's the stuff you see in Hollywood. "I watched the movie 'Divergent' recently, before our paper came out," Chun said. "They have this sequence where they're reading out people's thoughts using brain scanners. I think our work is a step toward that futuristic reality."