Talking to the Brain: How One Scientist Skipped the Middle Man—and Found Deep Philosophical Truths
Imagine waking up in a hospital room, unable to move.
You can hear the doctor telling someone that they're not sure what level of brain function you have, since you appear to be totally unresponsive. You try to speak but your throat is frozen. Your fingers and toes won't move. You can't even control your eyes.
It's the worst kind of nightmare: totally conscious but with no way to communicate, a prisoner in your own body. Although situations like this are rare, they have occurred. In most cases, if you found yourself in this kind of personal hell you were doomed to a life of mental torture.
That's until one very intrepid neuroscientist, Martin Monti, found a way to communicate.
The debate about the nature of the mind is, of course, a long and storied one in the world of philosophy. If science tells us that we're made of flesh and bone, what are thoughts made of? How separate is a person's animating mental force from the muscle, blood, and tissue that keeps them physically chugging along? The mind-body debate, as it's called, is a sticky one for many people. Monti wanted to prove that consciousness is what the brain does, not some ethereal aspect of a separate 'mind'.
In his book The Ravenous Brain, neuroscientist Bor Daniel describes the details. The experiment was straightforward: using a new model of fMRI that allowed for an almost immediate response between experimental activity and the readout of blood and oxygen levels in specific brain areas, Monti reasoned he could hijack and convert conscious thought into a binary yes-or-no response system.
To lay the groundwork for that binary, he'd need two areas of the brain linked to different activities, as far from each other as possible. At the top of the brain is a region called a motor cortex. It lights up the screen on an fMRI when you move body parts like your hands or arms. Towards the bottom of the brain is a region known as the parahippocampal place area, which activates navigation and place location activity.
Monti demonstrated his system on Bor Daniel. They placed Daniel in an fMRI machine and asked him a series of questions, instructing him not to answer verbally but instead to indicate "yes" by thinking deeply about playing tennis, with special concentration to his imaginary serve, and to signal "no" by imagining carefully surveying his own living room. In theory, tennis thoughts would send blood up to the motor cortex, and location thoughts would send blood down to the parahippocampal place area.
Studying the fMRI results, Monti found he was right. While it certainly made for a clumsy way to communicate, he could retrieve Daniel's answers directly from Daniel's brain. The accuracy rate proved to be 100%.
Not only did the experiment suggest a way to reach a person with deep level paralysis, it also demonstrated conscious thought as a direct function of brain activity, something most neuroscientists had largely accepted but couldn't prove.
The famous French philosopher Rene Descartes attempted to solve the mind-body problem with a slight of hand, referred to as the "ghost in the machine" solution. Monti did an even cooler trick: like Scooby Doo unmasking a phantom to discover it was actually a crooked amusement park owner, Monti showed that maybe the ghost was a part of the machine all along.