Straight out of Star Trek, scientists in Brazil and the U.S. recently announced that they may have captured the basis for the “Vulcan Mind Meld.”
Scientists are calling this latest development a “brain link,” but for any Star Trek fan, the concept is familiar—it’s the connection of brain waves between two people allowing for the exchange of thoughts, and in essence, allowing for the two participants to become one mind.
It got me thinking, what knowledge would I want to pull from someone else’s brain if I had the opportunity? What knowledge exists out there, that I currently don’t have, but would love to have (literally) instantly?
Before we go down that road, let’s lay out what’s actually been discovered: Scientists in Brazil captured, through electronic sensors (rather than telepathy, which was the Star Trek way), the thoughts of a rat in a lab and then sent the thoughts via the Internet to the brain of a rat in a Duke University lab in the U.S. The result was that the second rat received the thoughts of the first rat and instantly mimicked its behavior.
Amazing, yes, but it’s not the first time the Internet has been used to transmit thoughts. You may remember in 2008, when Duke University researchers captured the brain activity of a monkey and sent it via the Internet, ultimately controlling a robot arm in Japan. That drew media attention five years ago, but this discovery is different and it has the science world abuzz because it specifically involves direct brain-to-brain communication. And it raises the question—what could this mean for the future of how we learn? Think of the possibilities.
Personally, I have always wanted to be fluent in more than one language, and this discovery suggests that it might be possible to instantly exchange that knowledge with a native speaker.
Is there an aspect of your career that you wish you knew more about? How would it change your career if you could instantly learn something from someone else? How would this type of knowledge transfer affect how we learn in school and how would it affect how we learn at meetings and conferences?
We know some of these answers already.
“MPI’s research on the future of meetings shows that the future would see a focus on neuroscience and neural interactions and this would be based on enhanced understanding of how our brains work,” said researcher Jackie Mulligan, with Leeds Metropolitan University in London. “As more understanding emerges from studies [like this one] that explore neural communications, emotions, processes this area could grow in importance by supporting meetings to read audiences more effectively whether through face-to-face events or virtual events.”
Andrea Sullivan, neuroscience expert and president of BrainStrength Systems, says right now virtual and hybrid can’t even come close to face-to-face meetings, but she sees an opportunity to make better connections virtually.
“I see this as an opportunity that would further the ability for us to do long-distance work together. Not necessarily complete the shift to virtual meetings, but it would go a long way,” Sullivan says. “Right now our brains are just not capable of engaging completely with others virtually. It isn’t possible to accurately communicate any of the necessary emotions via digital communications—not like it is in a face-to-face meeting. We communicate so much through our bodies, so if the body is not there, we lose 90 percent of the value and the physiological information we need to understand each other.”
But again, this study suggests that the possibility to exchange such physiological information could exist. Could it in fact change the face of meetings? Mulligan thinks so.
“Imagine a Skype call now with an ability to read those neural signals,” Mulligan said. “These are all interesting possibilities to explore that could well deepen engagement in meetings in the future. However, one huge challenge with all of this which came out of the research was to what extent humans would be willing to engage and the ethical issues that would arise with these kinds of developments.”
Rhodri Thomas, professor of tourism and events policy at the International Centre for Research in Events, Tourism and Hospitality (ICRETH), suggests the ethical issues could take longer to manifest than the technology itself.
“The ethical issues are very complex and obviously require strict regulatory mechanisms internationally as medical scientists undertake research projects and develop their understanding of how the brain works. The likely outcomes for events practitioners will certainly be associated with enabling openness, consent and control for attendees over what is done to them or revealed about them. I’m sure there will be a myriad of other issues that we will need to give some serious thought to as these new insights and associated technologies emerge.”
This specific research is just the beginning, and as far as actual transfer of knowledge from one human brain to another, that’s much further down the road, Sullivan says.
“In terms of it being used for the normal population, we are talking way, way, way down the line,” she said. “It’s an interesting thought experiment, because we are learning more and more how to communicate with each other in ways other than face to face. We are headed toward some very interesting things, that’s for sure.”
The Duke research team is currently trying to expand their research to link four rat brains and two monkey brains to prove that the brain-to-brain communication can extend across multiple species.
But again, while the idea poses some interesting logistical and ethical questions for the meeting and event industry, we are still dreaming of a technology that’s at least a few years away. So for now, if you want to know my thoughts, you’ll just have to ask.
For more neuroscience news, visit www.dana.org