What’s the Deal with Mindreading?

This week, we got another announcement proclaiming that direct “brain-to-brain” communication has been achieved. Cue headlines invoking telepathy, ESP, and the arrival of a scientific future, such as this one from Bustle:


The scientific article in question actually lays out a much more limited approach, one that involved reducing the simple message of “hola” or “ciao” to a binary code that was transmitted via flashes of light to a human receiver, who then decoded them into the message. There’s a lot to say about the article in question, and the typical hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding it. But my question is a simpler one: why are researchers (and publics) so interested in mindreading in the first place?

The authors of the article seed public interest in the Discussion section, where they note: “We believe these experiments represent an important first step in exploring the feasibility of complementing or bypassing traditional language-based or other motor/PNS mediated means in interpersonal communication,” suggest the future possibility of direct brain-to-computer interfaces, and then suggest that “The widespread use of human brain-to-brain technologically mediated communication will create novel possibilities for human interrelation with broad social implications that will require new ethical and legislative responses.”

First of all, what is wrong with the means of communication we already have? The article suggests a frustration with “traditional language-based” communication, which presumably is messy and incomplete. That is, we often have trouble understanding each other, and if we could only communicate brain-to-brain, we might be able to get around that problem. In this way–and in the actual study design itself–the researchers are trying to invoke what language researchers call a “windowpane view of language,” a model in which there is a clear message that can be transmitted and interpreted by a receiver. The flashy (and clearly made-for-public) image included in the article demonstrates a windowpane model of language:

brain message


Here, we have the “emitter,” who consciously encodes a message, sends it via the internet to a robot, who programs it into the “receiver.” The choice of the simple message of “hola” (hello) or “ciao” (goodbye) is important here, because it is presumably a clear-cut message that can only be interpreted in one way–almost like a yes or no, or like the binary code to which the message is reduced.

Scientists love this idea of language as clear, transparent, and codifiable. Carolyn Miller describes this “windowpane view” as one that assumes that language “provides a view out onto the real world”; the idea that language can be either “clear” (good) or “obfuscated” (bad). Clear language gets the message across; as long as your language is clear and transparent, there can be no misunderstanding. Such a view of language is, fundamentally, a mistrust of rhetoric: of the idea that messages are always messy, subjective, and slippery. To avoid grappling with the messiness of language, scientists cling to the idea of a plain language and a model of input-output.

Unfortunately, language doesn’t work that way. Even a simple message like “hello” or “goodbye” could be interpreted in lots of different ways. Is one simply being friendly? Or is the “hello” meant in a come-hither way? Or a sarcastic way?

clueless hello


For a primer on current theories of language (explained with hipsters), check out this tutorial. Briefly, we now understand that meaning is always deferred: language means something by referring to something else; language is always metaphorical; it is fundamentally unstable. We make meaning by interpreting signs, and the same signs work differently in different contexts, so we depend on that context to interpret meaning. As this image illustrates, something as simple (and apparently clear-cut) as a hat, an earring, or a vintage camera conveys meaning to an audience, depending on the context. Just as the word “hello” means different things in different contexts, so do these visual symbols.


The mechanistic model of communication used in brain-to-brain research enacts the fantasy of communication stripped of all these layers of meaning, emotion, and tone, a type of communication that will finally be “clear” and “transparent.” Yet this fantasy also strikes some as scary–that is why the authors invoke “ethical” implications–and why Bustle.com calls it “heebie-jeebie inducing.” As was the case with transcranial stimulation–which has often been linked to conspiracy theories of government mind control, the idea of brain-to-brain communication evokes dystopian science fiction, from Doctor Who to A Clockwork Orange to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The flipside of a language stripped of context and made fully transparent–the fantasy of positivist science–is a language rendered (paradoxically) even more amenable to manipulation. Both of these fears, I’d argue, reflect a fundamental fear of rhetoric: a fear that language is not plain, is not clear, and is always suasive.

The ancient rhetoricians tackled these concerns early on. In “The Encomium of Helen,” Gorgias declared language to be akin to a drug: “The effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies.” Speech, Gorgias declares, can cause “some distress, others delight, some cause fear, others make the hearers bold, and some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.” These paradoxes of language, I would argue, underlie the obsession with brain-to-brain communication, with telepathy, mind-reading, and a clarified language (on the one hand) and mind control, manipulation, and malign persuasion (on the other).

Brain Stimulation: Why Now, But Not Then?

Yesterday I was in the campus coffee shop and saw a notice posted for volunteers for a direct brain stimulation study. The mother of what I assumed to be a new first year student or visiting college senior said “Oh look, they’re doing research on brain stimulation. Why don’t you volunteer.” Chuckles ensued.

A few decades ago, direct brain stimulation would have been treated with fear, not humor. In the 1970s, for instance, the enthusiastic researcher of brain stimulation, Jose Delgado, was practically driven out of the field for his controversial research. Jose M.R. Delgado was a professor of physiology at Yale University from 1950 to 1974. Concerned about the invasiveness and artificiality of some procedures then in use to study the brain, he developed a technique to study brains in monkeys, cats, and later, humans using electrical stimulation.


[The image features two monkeys who have been outfitted with stimoceivers. The monkey on the left has his mouth open in a grimace or yell; the monkey on the right is looking away from the camera, toward the wall. Image courtesy of http://www.biotele.com/delgado_%20ebook/chap13.htm

At the time, researchers wishing to understand how the brain worked could either rely on behavioral methods, which involved observing subjects in particular environments or conditions, or technologies such as electroencephalograms (first used on humans in 1924). But both of these techniques limited the kinds of claims a researcher could make: behavioral methods could not tell researchers much about the specific regions of the brain responsible for certain behaviors, while the EEG required subjects to be relatively immobile (and hence not engaged in daily activities). Both techniques prevented researchers from making concrete claims about the brain in use in realistic settings.

Delagdo’s technique solved this rhetorical problem: he used radio waves to stimulate brain regions in animals (and later humans) who had been implanted with the stimoceiver. (Delgado insisted that this was a “noninvasive” method, since subjects could move around and keep the stimoceiver for long periods of time—even indefinitely). Because he could observe individuals in “naturalistic” settings, Delgado was able to make broader claims about the implications of his research—which he did in his book, Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society. While he did not go as far as to suggest that humans should regularly be implanted with stimoceivers—a favored dystopic fantasy in science fiction novels—Delgado did suggest that the findings from this type of research could lead to research-based approaches to better educate and train humans.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Delgado undertook a prodigious series of brain stimulation experiments on cats, monkeys, and humans. The range of experimental foci is rather astonishing. Delgado measured how cats could be encouraged to overeat if their brains were stimulated, exposed monkeys to “noxious stimulation” meant to evoke aggression and anxiety, and induced hallucinations in a woman who had experienced epilepsy.

For instance, Delgado successfully invoked aggression in a pair of cats whose relationship had previously been “excellent and peaceful”: “as soon as the smaller animal was stimulated it attacked the large one, and a real battle ensued, with snarling, swiping, and biting” and could be repeated as often as the experimenter stimulated the smaller cat. As a result, “a state of mistrust was created” between the two cats (“Noxious Stimulation” 266).

In a study (or stunt) that became front page news in the New York Times, Delgado implanted a stimoceiver in a bull and used it to control the animal as he charged Delgado—a scientific matador. The New York Times called this the “the most spectacular demonstration ever performed of the deliberate modification of animal behaviour through external control of the brain” (1965).

delgado bull

[The image shows Jose Delgado during his famous experiment with a bull. The photo is in black and white. On the left, we see a bull apparently charging toward Delgado, who is holding a receiver for the electronic brain implant. In the background we see a wooden fence, and a man sitting on the fence observing the experiment. Photo courtesy of http://www.wireheading.com/jose-delgado.html]

Yet, Delgado’s mistake was in taking his claims too far. In Physical Control of the Mind (full text here), Delgado asserted that the late 1960s marked a “critical turning point” that could lead either toward a “psychocivilized society” or its opposite (23). Not only could brain stimulation lead toward medical treatments for individuals with “cerebral illnesses,” such as epilepsy and anorexia (200); it could also alleviate “anxiety, fear, compulsive obsessions, and aggressive behavior” (199), and potentially assist individuals with sensory problems (blindness, for example) (201). Yet, Delgado went beyond that to suggest that all brains should be open to neuropolitical action. What he means by the psychocivilized society is rather vague, and seems to have more to do with good childrearing, moral education, and the like. The point, Delgado suggests, is not whether or not human behavior is controlled, but to discuss “what kinds of controls are ethical” (249), “How should the human mind be structured? Which mental qualities and behavioral responses should be favored or inhibited” (252).

While Delgado ultimately positioned the neurological majority as only metaphorically parallel to his monkeys, his attempts at disambiguation here were largely unsuccessful. Brain stimulation was fine for those who are positioned, rhetorically, as obviously in need of remediation, such as the mentally ill person or criminal. But the suggestion that the rest of the population is somehow, also, subject to neurological manipulation seemed too much to take.

Shortly after he published Physical Control of the Mind, controversy emerged over the ethical implications of brain implantation research. Delgado was at the center of this controversy. Psychiatrist Peter Breggin submitted testiomony to the Congressional Record in 1972, in which he questioned this research direction, accusing Delgado’s approach as “technological totalitarianism.”  In 1973, Eliot Valenstein published Brain Control, a book highly critical of brain-implant research, alleging that. Also in 1973, Maya Pines published The Brain Changers: Scientists and the New Mind Control. These events (along with some conspiracy theorists who claimed Delgado had implanted them with brain chips as part of a government plot) led public opinion away from brain stimulation.

Delgado moved to Spain in 1974. He continued his research, but faded from recognition in the United States.  Today, Delgado is most often mentioned not by those seeking to use neuroscience to support such policies as teaching handwriting in schools, but on websites devoted to conspiracy theories about brainwashing and mind control.

So why is brain stimulation enjoying a renaissance today? Is it simply that fears of brain stimulation and government control have faded? Has government surveillance become so quotidian that it is no longer alarming? Is the dominant metaphor of the brain as a computer led us to think of it less like a fleshy object and more like an electronic one, so that brain stimulation becomes not so different from tinkering with a computer? Or have scientists successfully positioned brain stimulation solely in the realm of remediation for individuals with brain impairments? In my book project, I explore how and why brain stimulation has become naturalized and acceptable in the 2000s and 2010s using disability theory which, I think, provides part of the answer.


Mixed Metaphors: Is Consciousness a Lightswitch, a Gate, or a Conductor?



[The image features Mrs. Birdie Nebel, a receptionist and switch operator. This image, taken in 1961, shows Mrs. Nebel at her desk surrounded by a typewriter and switchboard equipment. She holds a black telephone to her ear as she flips a switch. She wears a white blouse and has short, curly hair and glasses. Source: Cover Girl Advertising Oral History and Documentation Project, Archives Center, National Museum of American History]

A few days ago, a series of popular science sources reported that scientists had just discovered the brain’s “off switch” or “lightswitch” for consciousness. The titles to these articles are remarkably similar:

There are more, but you get the idea.

These articles all report on a brief communication, published in the journal Epilepsy and Behavior, by researchers from George Washington University, Mohamad Koubeissi et al. The article in question, titled “Electrical Stimulation of a Small Brain Area Reversibly Disrupts Consciousness,” [DOI: 10.1016/j.yebeh.2014.05.027] does not use the switch or lightswitch metaphor. In the article, the researchers describe how stimulating one region of a woman’s brain, an area between the left claustrum and anterior-dorsal-insula, caused her to lose consciousness. The researchers hypothesize that this region may act as a “gate” toward consciousness, thereby introducing a different metaphor that implies not a simple on/off, but more of a pathway through a network.

The authors also quote another metaphor, this one from Francis Crick and Kristof Koch, who called the claustrum “a conductor coordinating a group of players in the orchestra.” The full quote, from the original continues: “Without the conductor, the players can still play but they fall increasingly out of synchrony with each other. The result is a cacophony of sounds.”

And Crick and Koch also introduce (but then discard) another metaphor: “the highly networked nature of the claustrum raises the question of whether it acts as a sort of ‘Cartesian theatre” (1276).

Why so many metaphors? What work are metaphors doing for neuroscientists–and for popularizers? Metaphors are useful for scientists, and for popularizers. For popularizers, they help to concretize abstract phenomena in terms we can understand. But for scientists, they do more–they serve as prompts for theorizing about science. Each new metaphor can lead to new insights and new lines of inquiry.

So what is the problem with these metaphors? The drawback for any metaphor is that it can easily obscure or distort information, often by oversimplifying or, in the case of neuroscience, by making an abstract phenomenon or function “uncritically real,” as Eric Racine, Ofek Bar-Ilan, and Judy Illes explain in their article, “fMRI in the Public Eye.” This constitutes “neurorealism.”

“Neurorealism” is easily seen in the article titles above. Clearly, the claustrum may function in some ways akin to an on/off switch, or the key in a car’s ignition, but it is NOT an on/off switch, or a lightswitch. Metaphors, then, are fundamental strategies for neurorealism: they make things seem concrete and real, even when they are not.

Yet, this neurorealism appears not only in the popular texts but in the scientific articles quoted above. Both Koubeissi et al. and Crick and Koch resort to metaphors to try to understand the claustrum and its functions. Using these metaphors, scientists act as though the claustrum IS a gate (or an orchestra conductor) and then proceed along that line of thought in order to determine what that metaphor can illuminate. The gate metaphor Koubeissi et al. use allows them to think about the claustrum as a key point in a pathway, while the conductor metaphor allows Crick and Koch to think about the claustrum as though it were more of a coordinator among a number of regions or functions.

So neurorealism is not a simply a fallacy to be avoided–it is crucial for scientific practice. We see similar kinds of realism operating in genetic research, where the metaphor of the “gene” itself has done important work for scientists, as Elizabeth Parthenia Shea explains in How the Gene Got Its GrooveBut, as in neuroscience, popularized metaphors of the gene as “the book of life,” as a “blueprint,” or as a “code,” can also mislead public audiences. And they can mislead scientists, too, since sometimes the attendant characteristics from a metaphor get carried into scientific theories in ways that can lead them on the wrong track.

Notice, also, that the metaphors we choose are always culturally dependent. The lightswitch, gate, and orchestra conductor metaphors all draw upon culturally available ideas. Notice that no one compared this area of the brain to the switch operator, a Mrs. Birdie Nebel, pictured above in an image from 1961.

What is needed then, is not a crusade against metaphors, but perhaps greater awareness of metaphors, both among scientists and public audiences–of their limitations as well as their important functions in all kinds of discourse.