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Topic: Brain research: Can detect who we are thinking about
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Brain research: Can detect who we are thinking about
Posted: Mar 21, 2013 5:01 PM
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From Scientific American, Thursday, March 14, 2013. See
Brain Researchers Can Detect Who We Are Thinking About

FMRI scans of volunteers' media prefrontal cortexes revealed unique
brain activity patterns associated with individual characters or
personalities as subjects thought about them

By Charles Q. Choi and Txchnologist

Scientists scanning the human brain can now tell whom a person is
thinking of, the first time researchers have been able to identify
what people are imagining from imaging technologies.

Work to visualize thought is starting to pile up successes. Recently,
scientists have used brain scans to decode imagery directly from the
brain, such as what number people have just seen and what memory a
person is recalling. They can now even reconstruct videos of what a
person has watched based on their brain activity alone. Cornell
University cognitive neuroscientist Nathan Spreng and his colleagues
wanted to carry this research one step further by seeing if they
could deduce the mental pictures of people that subjects conjure up
in their heads.

"We are trying to understand the physical mechanisms that allow us to
have an inner world, and a part of that is how we represent other
people in our mind," Spreng says.

Imagining others

His team first gave 19 volunteers descriptions of four imaginary
people they were told were real. Each of these characters had
different personalities. Half the personalities were agreeable,
described as liking to cooperate with others; the other half were
less agreeable, depicted as cold and aloof or having similar traits.
In addition, half these characters were described as outgoing and
sociable extroverts, while the others were less so, depicted as
sometimes shy and inhibited. The scientists matched the genders of
these characters to each volunteer and gave them popular names like
Mike, Chris, Dave or Nick, or Ashley, Sarah, Nicole or Jenny.

The researchers then scanned volunteers' brains using functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by
detecting changes in blood flow. During the scans, the investigators
asked participants to predict how each of the four fictitious people
might behave in a variety of scenarios - for instance, if they were
at a bar and someone else spilled a drink, or if they saw a homeless
veteran asking for change.

"Humans are social creatures, and the social world is a complex
place," Spreng says. "A key aspect to navigating the social world is
how we represent others."

The scientists discovered that each of the four personalities were
linked to unique patterns of brain activity in a part of the organ
known as the medial prefrontal cortex. In other words, researchers
could tell whom their volunteers were thinking about.

"This is the first study to show that we can decode what people are
imagining," Spreng says.

Unlocking brain's personality models

The medial prefrontal cortex helps people deduce traits about others.
These findings suggest this region is also where personality models
are encoded, assembled and updated, helping people understand and
predict the likely behavior of others and prepare for the future.

"The scope of this is incredible when you think of all the people you
meet over the course of your life and are able to remember. Each one
probably has its own unique representation in the brain," Spreng
says. "This representation can be modified as we share experiences
and learn more about each other, and plays into how we imagine future
events with others unfolding."

The anterior medial prefrontal cortex is also linked to autism and
other disorders were people have problems with social interactions.
These findings suggest people with such disorders may suffer from an
inability to build accurate personality models of others. Further
research could not only help diagnose these diseases, but also help
treat such disorders, researchers say.

The scientists detailed their findings online March 5 in the journal
Cerebral Cortex [see
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S): Charles Q. Choi has written for Scientific
American, The New York Times, Wired, Science and Nature, among
others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents,
including scaling the side of an iceberg in Antarctica, investigating
mummies from Siberia, snorkeling in the Galapagos, climbing Mt.
Kilimanjaro, camping in the Outback, avoiding thieves near Shaolin
Temple and hunting for mammoth DNA in Yukon.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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