From Jones and Bartlett, a book on Stem Cells from Dr. Ann A. Kiessling and Scott C. Anderson:

Selected Articles:

October 20, 2003

We know what you're thinking

Scientists can see your thoughts. You won't believe what's on your mind.

You no longer have to go to Madame LeFoni's to have a mind-reading session. Scientists can read your mind too, at least a little. And what they see when they look into your mind is, well, thought-provoking.

How do those tricky scientists pull off this legerdemain? They use a special type of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) that can measure minute flows of blood in your brain. Most scientists have believed that blood flow correlates to neural activity, but the proof has been hard to obtain. Is your brain really working out - pumping irony, so to speak - or is the blood flow totally unrelated to mental processes?

An experiment by Nikos Logothetis in 2001 put this to the test. In a very delicate study, he showed a tight correlation between the blood flow as measured by the MRI and electronic pulses as measured by an electrode implanted in a monkey brain. This finally put the science on a firm footing.

How does this spooky mind-reading trick work? It uses an intriguing aspect of MRI, namely that it can precisely locate specific types of molecules in a 3D space like your head (unless your head is only 2D -- in which case we can read what's on your mind by looking at your thought balloons). Using a variation of normal MRI called BOLD (blood oxygenation level-dependent) contrast they can actually distinguish the fresh blood that's carrying oxygen from the spent blood that is oxygen poor. This sensitive MRI then creates a 3D image on a computer showing what part of your brain is getting oxygen when you are thinking certain thoughts.

So if you're thinking about a rib-eye steak smothered in mushrooms (never write articles when you're hungry), can these scientists see a picture of it in your brain?

Well, almost. There are layers of nerve cells at the back of your head that act a lot like a movie screen, showing a processed image of what your eyeballs are looking at. And there are areas at the top of your brain that seem to map to a little person laid across your cortex. When you stick a bite of steak in your mouth and start to chew, a spot in your brain lights up, and it's reliable - a good scientist can tell when you're chewing by looking for that spot. Well, even a lousy scientist can tell you're chewing by looking at your jaw going up and down, but the point is that there's a definite correlation between the things that you do and certain parts of your brain that light up.

At least that's the theory.

But lately, things are being stood on their head. Turns out, if you just think about eating that steak, the same chewing area lights up. Okay, that makes sense. You have to think about it before you can make it happen, so maybe the scientists are seeing the thought that leads to the action. But it turns out to be stranger than that.

In one experiment, Giacomo Rizzolatti mapped out all the brain spots that were involved with actually tossing a ball. He then decided to see what would happen when the subject merely watched someone else tossing a ball. Interestingly enough, the same areas of the brain lit up. The part of the brain that was involved in tossing is also involved with watching tossing.

Which means, among other things, that watching Monday Night Football is good mental exercise. It also means that people learn in a very direct way when they watch someone. They don't just passively watch someone, they seem to model the motion in their brains. And, having modeled it, they apparently find it easier to emulate.

This leads to much interesting speculation. For instance, if people can effortlessly mimic another person's brain patterns, does that explain how people are able to relate to each other? Is this the underlying circuitry responsible for empathy?

This synchronization extends to facial expressions as well. When we watch another person talk, we often find ourselves emulating their expressions, which in turn seems to lead to similar blood flows and thus common brain patterns. Another person's smile can actually make you happier, whether you want it to or not.

What happens if there is a break in this pathway? What happens when you can't walk in someone's shoes because of some lousy brain chemistry? Could that explain pathological behavior?

The natural, built-in ability to model another human like this is an extraordinary discovery. Far from being the lone wolf, man has -- built into some primal circuitry -- an ability to resonate with his fellow man. For all our theories about selfishness, blind greed and Darwinian struggles, on some deeply biological level at least, we feel the pain of our fellow man.

Some people, like Saddam Hussein, have managed to rise above their compassion. They demonstrate that biology is not necessarily destiny. But for the rest of us, helping our fellow man may directly contribute to our own happiness. You needn't believe in fairy godmothers for it to work, either. This is a measurable biological phenomena. It's hard to refute mother nature.

Those party-poopers who believe that violence is a cornerstone of humanity have received a setback. Indeed, the research implies that when violence flares up, it is most likely because there is a madman for people to emulate, not because of a lack of sympathy on anyone's part.

Our brains actually seem wired to produce understanding, not anger. And that may be some of the most hopeful news about humans in a long time.


For more information about the brain, click on these links:

The Scientist


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Here are some other suggested readings about the brain: