Monkey see, monkey do: Scientists build ‘ESP’ machine which lets them predict what monkeys will do next using a brain scan

  • Brain scanner reveals intention before they act
  • Two monkeys with different ‘personalities’ key to discovery
  • Could technology one day work on humans?
  • Test with monkeys reaching past obstacles

By Rob Waugh

PUBLISHED: 08:08 EST, 25 July 2012 | UPDATED: 08:08 EST, 25 July 2012

A brain scanner can ‘read monkey’s minds’ – accurately predicting what the creatures will do next.

The machine can ‘see’ whether monkeys are planning to act instantly or wait.

It opens up the possibility that scientists will one day be able to predict human actions using similar technologies.

The discovery was made by accident during a study of individual brain cells – neurons – and how much information could be ‘seen’ in the firing of a single neuron.

But the results of the scans of two monkeys could reveal different planning strategies, allowing the scientists, in effect, to read the monkeys’ minds.

By chance, the two monkeys chosen for the study had completely different cognitive styles.

One, the scientists said, was a hyperactive type, who kept jumping the gun, and the other was a smooth operator, who waited for the entire setup to be revealed before planning his next move.

The difference is clearly visible in their decoded brain activity.

The monkeys were tested with a standard test where the animal must move its hand from a central location to targets placed on a circle surrounding the starting position.

This time, though, the scientists added obstacles – which only appeared one-third of the time. The readings could show whether the monkey was intending to ‘play’ – and showing whether they would ‘reach round’ an obstacle.

‘It wasn’t working,’ one of the researchers at Washington University, St Louis says, ‘and I was frustrated because I couldn’t figure out why the data looked so inconsistent. So I separated the data by monkey, and then I could see, wow, they’re very different. They’re approaching this task differently and that’s kind of cool.’

The difference between the monkey’s’ styles showed up during the second hold. At this point in the task, the target was visible, but the obstacle had not yet appeared.

Monk-ESP: Scans on the monkey's heads could reveal what they would do BEFORE they did itMonk-ESP: Scans on the monkey’s heads could reveal what they would do BEFORE they did it

The hyperactive monkey, called monkey H, couldn’t wait. One reading – his ‘population vector’ – showed that he was poised for a direct reach to the target.

When the obstacle was then revealed, the population vector shortened and rotated to the direction he would need to move to avoid the obstacle.

The smooth operator, monkey G, in the meantime, idled through the second hold, waiting patiently for the obstacle to appear.

Only when it was revealed did he begin to plan the direction he would move to avoid the obstacle.

Working with the monkeys, the scientists had been aware that they had very different personalities, but they had no idea this difference would show up in their neural recordings.

‘That’s what makes this really interesting,’ Moran says.
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Posted on July 25, 2012, in Health / Medicine, Science / Technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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