We humans have evolved a rich repertoire of communication, from gesture to sophisticated languages. All of these forms of communication link otherwise separate individuals in such a way that they can share and express their singular experiences and work together collaboratively. In a new study, technology replaces language as a means of communicating by directly linking the activity of human brains. Electrical activity from the brains of a pair of human subjects was transmitted to the brain of a third individual in the form of magnetic signals, which conveyed an instruction to perform a task in a particular manner. This study opens the door to extraordinary new means of human collaboration while, at the same time, blurring fundamental notions about individual identity and autonomy in disconcerting ways.
Direct brain-to-brain communication has been a subject of intense interest for many years, driven by motives as diverse as futurist enthusiasm and military exigency. In his book Beyond Boundaries one of the leaders in the field, Miguel Nicolelis, described the merging of human brain activity as the future of humanity, the next stage in our species’ evolution. (Nicolelis serves on Scientific American’s board of advisers.) He has already conducted a study in which he linked together the brains of several rats using complex implanted electrodes known as brain-to-brain interfaces. Nicolelis and his co-authors described this achievement as the first “organic computer” with living brains tethered together as if they were so many microprocessors. The animals in this network learned to synchronize the electrical activity of their nerve cells to the same extent as those in a single brain. The networked brains were tested for things such as their ability to discriminate between two different patterns of electrical stimuli, and they routinely outperformed individual animals.
If networked rat brains are “smarter” than a single animal, imagine the capabilities of a biological supercomputer of networked human brains. Such a network could enable people to work across language barriers. It could provide those whose ability to communicate is impaired with a new means of doing so. Moreover, if the rat study is correct, networking human brains might enhance performance. Could such a network be a faster, more efficient and smarter way of working together?
Image Credit: C. Lagattuta