Your Mind on Film

New technology can extract visual images from yout brain. Whole scenes can be reconstructed via fMRI, right out of your visual cortex. And shockingly few people know this is happening.
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New technology can extract visual images from yout brain. Whole scenes can be reconstructed via fMRI, right out of your visual cortex. And shockingly few people know this is happening.

The most common reaction is astonishment. "This makes me giddy!" says one commenter. It's "one of the most amazing things I've ever seen," says another.

"This is the beginning of the end of free thought," says a third.

That last pundit may have a point: Like the pensieve in the Harry Potter series, this new technology seems to promise us physical access not only to our own memories, but to the memories and thoughts of others. In short, mind is becoming matter.

Surely, though (you might say) we're not all going to start recording our thoughts and memories and leaving them on thumb drives or in the Cloud, where, you know,anyone could be pawing around in them.

Well, here's the thing: Aren't we mostly doing that already? Think YouTube and LiveLeak.

Still, what makes this technology different from everyday video recording is its intimacy with the human mind. As a paper in the scientific journal Neuron explains, the new technique takes advantage of a phenomenon called retinotopy: The fact that spatial relationships among things we see are preserved in certain parts of our brains as we process the images.

Scientists have been studying retinotopy since the 1970s -- but researchers at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, recently took advantage of the phenomenon in a creative new way: They recorded high-resolution fMRI scans of volunteers' brains as the subjects watched video clips, and designed a computer program to match specific video frames with the activity of specific neurons in the brain's retinotopic maps. So now, when the volunteers watch new clips, the computer can monitor their brain activity and reconstruct video footage of what they're seeing.

These thought videos, like the earliest photographs and film strips, are undeniably blurry. But the point is, this technology works. We humans have been striving to record our thoughts since the dawn of cave painting -- and now, in the most literal sense, we're actually doing it.

This is, to put it mildly, a pretty big deal. We find ourselves at one of those rare moments in history when a scientific breakthrough stands poised to give birth to a new art form. Or a game-changing technology, depending on who you ask. In fact, quite a lot will depend on who controls this technique -- who's the first to patent it for commercial use.

You don't need me to tell you that in the hands of Hollywood directors, it has the potential to inspire works of haunting vulnerability and honesty. Or that in Madison Avenue offices, it could inspire ad campaigns of unprecedented penetration. Or that in the hands of the military....

Let's imagine for a second, though, that none of that happens.

Let's imagine that in 2019, a kid in India figures out how to capture video of his thoughts on a computer he's hacked together in his basement. He posts a few tutorials, and suddenly a whole network of young artists and students are sharing their own thought videos.

A nerdy girl from Argentina dives into the mind of an archaeologist in Beijing; a videographer in Tel Aviv; a politician in Denver. An artist in San Jose records his acid-infused visions and lets local bands rear-project the footage during their shows. In Upper East Side high schools, sons of stockbrokers gather around minds-eye recordings of Pashtun refugees, and get riled up like never before because all of a sudden it's like this is happening to them.

Am I getting ahead of myself? Maybe so -- this technology is still in its infancy.

All I'm saying is, this first gasp of astonishment -- this banquet of childlike giddiness over this new technology, this unique new form of art -- is something that begs to be shared with others. Every human being deserves to watch a demonstration; to be delighted or terrified by it; most of all, to see firsthand that this is really, truly happening.

So as soon as some young inventor throws the first live thought-video art show, I'll be standing at the front of the line. See you there too, I hope.

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