The NYT published an article in 2007 titled “This Is Your Brain on Politics.” The article was simple from the political point of view but it was quite complex on its methodology. Its goal was to predict the perception of swing voters in the US towards Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama using neuroimaging. Brains of the swing voters were imaged and then used that information to make their predictions.
The article captured the attention of neuroscientist Russell Poldrack who at the time was working at Stanford University as a researcher. It was a very interesting and scary article but also inspiring for him. Poldrack has since written and published a new article titled “The New Mind Readers: What Neuroimaging Can and Cannot Reveal in Our Thoughts.” The article was published by Princeton University Press and it explores the idea of using technology to predict people’s thoughts. It focuses on what we can learn from brain imaging and what we can’t. Some techniques like fMRI, which is used to determine brain activity by measuring blood activity, are quite advanced but they too have their own shortcomings.
Poldrack has been talking to online news agencies about the possibility of leveraging on tech to read thoughts and he has some very interesting perspectives. For starters, he says that neuroimaging is really not a new thing. As early as 2007 the practice was already in full swing and in fact there were many papers that showed you can decode people’s intentions by looking at their brain. Despite this, Poldrack questioned the effectiveness of these techniques. He argues that neuroimaging is a non-direct measure of neurons and this makes it very hard to pinpoint anything.
In addition to this, the data that comes from neuroimaging is very complicated and may require very complex processing techniques. There has been a lot of disagreement on how statistical analysis is applied in the understating of these images. This puts a shadow of doubt in the results or predictions made as a result of the images. Poldrack also notes that human brains are not the same. In fact, each person has a very unique brain. Using one general rule or methodology to interpret thoughts can be fallacious.
The biggest challenge at the moment according to him is in the processing of images from MRI. There has to be a consensus among neuroscientists and other scholars on the right approach to interpret the MRI images. Besides, most of the approaches used so far tend to assume that brain activity is a psychological response. This is very problematic because there are so many other factors that may cause increased brain activity other than psychological responses. But there’s, of course, promise of increased breakthroughs in this area. The idea that one day machines will be able to read what you’re thinking is scary no doubt but that’s exactly the future where we’re headed to. But Poldrack feels we’re still very far from this reality at the moment.