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Scientists Say They Can Read Your Mind, And Prove It With Pictures


David. Hey, David.



MONTAGNE: What am I - what am I thinking?

GREENE: (Laughter) I have no idea. I'm not a mind reader.

MONTAGNE: Ah, but you might be in the not-too-distant future. This summer, we're looking at technologies that can give you super powers.

GREENE: Awesome.

MONTAGNE: OK. And today, NPR's Barry Gordemer tells us about scientists who can download pictures from your brain and scientists who can even control your actions with their thoughts.

BARRY GORDEMER, BYLINE: In the "X-Men" comic books and movies, Charles Xavier had a little extra something in his DNA that gave him an awesome superpower.


JAMES MCAVOY: (As Charles Xavier) One of the many spectacular things my mutation allows me to do is that I can read your mind.

GORDEMER: But you don't have to be a mutant to read minds. Jack Gallant is a professor at UC Berkeley, and he can literally see what's on your mind.

JACK GALLANT: Your eye is sort of like a camera. There's an image of the world on the back of your eye, and that image is projected on the back of your brain. And we can record blood flow signals and translate those signals back into the picture that you saw.

GORDEMER: In other words, Gallant has been recording images from people's brains and playing them back like a movie. The process starts by showing test subjects a bunch of random movie clips.

GALLANT: And then people watched these clips while we were recording their brain activity by means of MRI.

GORDEMER: The MRI data was fed into a computer which reconstructed what the person saw. Now the images aren't super clear, but you can make out what's going on.

GALLANT: They have this dreamy quality, as if you're looking through the world through a thick piece of gauze. You might be able to tell that there was somebody speaking, but you wouldn't be able to tell if it was a man or a woman.

GORDEMER: The technology is kind of primitive right now, but as it improves, the list of things that potentially can be plucked from your brain gets kind of scary.

GALLANT: We'll be able to decode the things you are looking at, the internal dialogue you're having with yourself as you talk to yourself throughout the day, your feelings. All of those things will be accessible.

GORDEMER: So that's mind reading. Another mental superpower scientists are working on is telekinesis, the ability to move things with your mind.

GORDEMER: This is a video from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It shows a paraplegic woman feeding herself with a robotic arm controlled by her thoughts.


JAN SCHEUERMANN: I fed myself chocolate and then string cheese and then a red pepper.

GORDEMER: A number of companies are working on thought-powered videogame controllers, but what about controlling a person with your mind, a la Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars"?


ALEC GUINNESS: (As Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi) These aren't the droids you're looking for.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Stormtrooper) These aren't the droids we're looking for.

GUINNESS: (As Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi) Move along.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Stormtrooper) Move along.

GORDEMER: Two years ago, a couple of researchers at the University of Washington actually pulled off a Jedi mind control trick of their own. Rajesh Rao sat in a lab and played a videogame. When he wanted to shoot down an enemy rocket, he didn't just push a button. He just thought fire, and that thought traveled over the internet to Andrea Stocco.

ANDREA STOCCO: The brain waves associated with thinking about shooting down the rocket were recorded by a computer and transferred over to my brain.

GORDEMER: Stocco was sitting in another lab a mile and a half away, and when his research partner thought fire...

STOCCO: ...My hand essentially moved...

GORDEMER: And pressed a button that shot down the rocket. The man who thought about firing was wearing a cap that measured electrical activity in his brain. Stocco wore a cap that delivered an electronic pulse to the part of his brain that controls hand movements.

STOCCO: When I was young, the comic books I was reading were all about these things. I guess some of them brushed off and led me to the point where I am right now.

GORDEMER: Which might lead us one day to become psychic, but I bet you already knew that. Barry Gordemer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 19, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, we say a woman with paraplegia was able to feed herself with a robotic arm controlled by her thoughts. The woman has quadriplegia.
Barry Gordemer is an award-winning producer, editor, and director for NPR's Morning Edition. He's helped produce and direct NPR coverage of two Persian Gulf wars, eight presidential elections, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. He's also produced numerous profiles of actors, musicians, and writers.