Inventions based on applications of electro-encephalography (EEG) are now being refined and made available to the general public. So are there any technological limits to reading people’s minds and channelling their thoughts to manipulate matter?

Can We Really Control Everything with Our Thoughts?

Controlling tools using just your thoughts is the ultimate step in abolishing man-machine interfaces. This is no longer the distant dream of just a few years ago, when you had to attach a forest of electrodes to the human brain in order to gather electrical signals powerful enough to analyse and channel. Controlling objects through the power of thought was originally known as ‘psychokinesis’, a term coined by American parapsychologist Joseph Banks Rhine on the basis of the Greek words for ‘mind’ and ‘movement’, to denote “the movement or change of physical objects without the application of physical force, mind over matter.” These days, when we talk about objects moving in response to a person’s thoughts, the word generally used is ‘telekinesis’. This concept has now become widespread with the use of electro-encephalogram (EEG) headsets, which draw on electrical signals from the brain to translate ‘thoughts’ in the form of neuron connections into binary signals. Until quite recently, electro-encephalography required much more complex procedures, which were available only in research institutions but the new headset approach heralds the arrival of this technology in low-cost form.

The advent of EEG headsets

All electrical activity, including nerve activity, generates impulses which can be translated into electronic signals and then read using advanced machine language. Accordingly, an EEG headset collects electrical signals emitted by the brain via nerve impulses, isolated by electrodes placed on the forehead. The neurons perform as a network, emitting electrical signals to and from each other via connections called synapses. The technology used in low-cost EEG headsets enables a fairly accurate transcription of the electrical information on to a computer. Fabien Lotte, a researcher at INRIA, a French public research body for digital science and technology, explains the novelty of EEG sensors: “Their appearance at the beginning of the millennium represented a break with the past as they use dry electrodes,” thus avoiding the need to apply gel to the cranium, which tends to increase the level of ‘noise’ interfering with the brainwaves you are trying to read. Another headset, the Mindwave developed by NeuroSky, comprises a set of electrodes able to measure brainwaves from the inside, a few millimetres from the skull, once a sensor has been placed on your forehead. The great advantage of the latest EEG headsets is that they can isolate the signal from the surrounding ‘noise’ at very low cost.

EEG headsets are becoming lighter and now transcribe electrical signals to higher quality levels. They are therefore proving extremely useful for people suffering from motor handicaps. However, before a person is able to make practical use of the system, s/he has to go through a process – not always straightforward – of ‘re-educating the mind’. Once this step has been overcome and the equipment has been mastered, paraplegics will be able for example to control the movements of their wheelchairs using thought, without having to move any of their limbs.

Young engineers from French engineering school ESME have recently been investigating how to benefit from the low cost aspect of the headset made by NeuroSky. They have invented a mind-controlled wheelchair, which responds to eye-blinking – i.e. facial muscles – and concentration, which affects blood flow, to regulate the speed. When it comes to concentration, claims Pierre Pagliughi, one of the inventors, there’s no need to train the user in advance. S/he will be able to apply it automatically. In fact, the only way to achieve finer monitoring of brainwaves, explains Pagliughi, is to increase the number of electrodes placed on the cranium. This would enable the user for example to send directional commands, such as ‘go to the right’, or ‘go to the left’, via pure thought rather than by blinking his/her eyes.

Increasing numbers of projects using EEG headsets – from steering drones to manipulating bionic limbs – are now under way. Connected artificial limbs are still among the easiest tools for people to control by brainwaves once they have received some training, as this calls for ‘motor’ commands, which can be isolated and captured much more easily than abstract thoughts which require more electrodes and more user training.

Meanwhile London-based startup MindRDR is focusing on combining the trend for wearable electronics with ‘mind control’, and has succeeded in connecting Google Glass with a device that monitors brain activity. The current version uses a commercially available NeuroSky brain monitor to extract core metrics from the mind. These are expressed as Meditation and Attention levels. One of their test applications allows users to take pictures, triggered by a conscious level of concentration which the sensors attached to the subject’s forehead detect from the increased blood flow to the spot. By concentrating even harder, the user is then able to share the photos on social networks such as Facebook and Instagram via Google Glass.

Reducing thought to electrical signals?

The low-cost EEG headset, which marks a paradigm-shift in man-machine interfaces, raises the question of how we relate to technology. For a number of years now, various artists have been working in this area. The fact that artists are getting into in this area of technology is a good illustration of how electro-encephalography raises questions that go beyond the mere notion of innovation.

For the Head Edit project, (2011), artist Gregory Chatonsky wore an EEG headset to undertake mind-controlled editing, thus responding to the call from the Russian film director Vertov for somebody to invent a means of editing flilm through thought. In Dislocation VII: Suspension of Attention (2013), the artist invites the audience to interact with a heavy iron door, which s/he can move using the power of thought alone channelled through an EEG headset. Chatonsky’s intention here is however to show that the impression of power that we feel when the door is controlled by the mind is actually illusory. He believes that “the alternating concentration and relaxation demanded by the experiment demonstrates that it is the door that guides us. We are not in control.” So the artist is using the EEG headset to debunk some of the promises made for the science of ‘mind control’. He argues that the EEG headsets as he has used them in his projects, i.e. worn by spectators, illustrate the limited extent of the information provided by brain waves, which operates in a purely binary way.

More widespread use coming soon?

In spite of these limitations, EEG headsets are nevertheless likely to become increasing widespread among the general public, and may well change people’s relationship with both the material world and our notion of what an idea is. If a thought can be read, why can it not be programmed?  Chatonsky sees the optimism expressed by some people in the scientific community regarding this new ‘thought-reading’ technology as yet another form of faith.   Although he does not think EEG headsets will live up to the promise of reading people’s minds clearly, which would involve complex, culture-based factors, headsets that are touted as being able to ‘scan thoughts’ are still likely to have an impact on the way people relate to ‘ideas’.

All in all however, EEG techniques should probably not be seen as a panacea for man-machine interaction in the future. Communicating through an EEG headset is far from easy and if you wish to achieve a high level of precision in the way the waves are processed, the headset wearer has to be trained to use it.  Fabien Lotte summarises the scientists’ view on the question: “The scientific community takes a dim view of making biosensors available to the general public." He stresses that the marketing spiel for EEG headsets makes them seem something which they are not. For instance, the Mindwave headset simply captures electrical signals from facial muscles or the brain, but the company focuses exclusively on its ability to ‘read thoughts’. Similarly, we do not actually know to what extent the Emotiv technology captures waves emitted by nerve activity or actually by the muscles. Despite caution among researchers, the Emotiv headset is being used not merely during public demonstrations but also for scientific research.

Fabien Lotte also remains sceptical regarding the long term development of mind control. In contrast with ‘transhumanist’ theory, which postulates the feasibility of thought control, both Gregory Chatonsky and Fabien Lotte remain convinced that this is technically impossible. The fact that discussion on telekinesis and brainwave monitoring is taking place between the two opposing camps of science and art is a fairly strong sign that this means of accessing and channelling information will remain a hot topic in the near future. Nevertheless, man-machine interaction is today far from reaching the stage of real symbiosis hoped for by the keenest transhumanist thinkers among scientists and futurologists.

Written by Simon Guigue et Arthur de Villemandy