Quick, what are brain scans used for? Finding stuff like cancer right? Not anymore! Well, actually yes, still that -- but Science has also found a whole bunch of ways to use brain scans to predict awesomely, worryingly, creepily specific things about your future! Now serious men in lab coats can slap a machine on your head and predict stuff like what products you'll buy, which tests you'll fail in class and even how likely you are to be a raging drunk. It's the future!
Everybody get out your tin-foil hats.
In an effort to replace the subtle molestations that occur every time we travel with something much less physically traumatizing (but perhaps more existentially disturbing), researchers have figured out how to tell whether or not a person is a terrorist just from brain scans. Which is great, because the old method of threatening to tell his mother wasn't very effectual.
Terrorist and future reality show star scans are remarkably similar.
Scientists at Northwestern University asked participants to think up a mock terrorist scheme. The subjects obligingly wrote down their plans, including all the details they could think of while surely wondering if this was all just some elaborate Patriot Act entrapment. They showed the plans to nobody until the experiment was over. The participants were then hooked up to brain scanners that measured a wave called P300, which, amongst other things, is sometimes associated with feelings of guilt and secrecy. As they scanned their EEGs, researchers showed the volunteers several names of major cities and, astoundingly, they could pinpoint which city the participant had planned on attacking -- as well as a few other key details like weapon of choice -- with 83 percent accuracy.
And that's from a cold scan: If the researchers had a few basic details of the terrorist's plan in advance -- stuff that the government already picks up from radio or email chatter -- they were able to bump that figure up to 100 percent. Absolute certainty.
Taping wires to your hair is just a formality.
Those are downright sci-fi levels of future prediction. And though the process comes with some caveats right now -- you'd basically have to catch the terrorist first to find out if you should've bothered catching them -- we're just a whittling machine and an elfin protagonist away from making Minority Report a reality.
But before you go off thinking how awesome that is, remember: You are not Tom Cruise in this movie. None of us are. We're all that weaselly guy with the scissors, wondering how the shock-troops knew of our plan to flood Colorado with counterfeit iPhones when we'd barely even thought it yet.
Neuroscientists at UCLA used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to take a peek at the medial prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with things like self-reflection and motivation) of various students while they showed them a PSA for sunscreen.
After the participants finished what was no doubt a riveting and unflinching look at the dangers of existing outside, the researchers asked them a few questions about their plans to use sunscreen in the future, and then callously booted them out into the burning, merciless day.
"Skin cancer is a 'Big Sunscreen' fabrication. So, no."
The scientists then followed up on the students a week later, asking how many had actually gone through with the whole sunscreen thing. Based on brain activity, researchers were able to predict roughly 75 percent of those who actually used sunscreen in response to the PSA. This study wasn't conducted on a beach at Surf Party University -- they specifically picked subjects that did not use sunscreen regularly, and were able to tell in advance who was influenced by the PSA. What's even crazier is that the brain scans made more accurate predictions about the participant's behavior than the participants themselves: Fewer than half of the students were able to accurately predict their own intentions.
The researchers developed a model based on their findings with the first group, and began testing that model on the next group, and so on. As they shuffled and reorganized; ran simulations and analyzed findings; it became clear: Their findings held up. A simple brain scan knows you 25 percent better than you could ever know yourself.
"Oh, man -- he'll definitely be giving some disclosure papers to the neighborhood he moves into."
As for any worrying implications of mind control, we'll stay above that kind of panicky fear-mongering.
We'll let the scientists themselves do it: Professor Lieberman, lead researcher, ominously stated, "For advertisers, there may be a lot more that is knowable than is known." While Dr. Emily Falk, his co-author, went on to say, "We hope to build a sophisticated model of persuasion that may incorporate multiple brain regions."
And then presumably both of them disappeared in a giant black puff of smoke, their ominous laughter lingering long after their bodies had vanished.
As human beings, we tend to think we're pretty hot shit. Our brains are so complex that a 4-year-old child puts a supercomputer to shame in certain tasks. We are vast and complicated machines; beautiful snowflakes disrupting the predictability of the universe with the sheer untapped potential of humanity.
Or, you know, not. A simple brain scan can tell in 20 seconds whether or not you'll succeed at something.
"This is going to be awkward. Just ... let's leave her in there until she says something."
Federico Cirett started with the simple premise that, when stressed or fatigued, students get distracted and their performance drops. Pretty intuitive stuff there, guy -- that's groundbreaking work on par with Dr. Obvious' controversial Thrown Objects Cause Subjects to Flinch theory, and the earth-shattering It's Mostly Drunks and Stoners at Taco Bell study. Cirett decided to test this mind-bending hypothesis by hooking up students to an EEG while they took the SAT. What he found was far more surprising than confirmation of his "not feeling well equals bad test day" suspicion.
Based solely on brain activity, the researchers were able to predict with 80 percent accuracy whether or not a student would be able to solve a problem correctly. This wasn't like 5 minutes into solving the problem, either -- well after the crying and praying stages have passed. As we mentioned, the predictions were made after a mere 20 seconds of consideration.
And if it's one of those "a train takes off from" problems, it can do it in one-tenth that time.
Twenty seconds. That's how long it takes for a computer to tell you that you "cannot handle this shit." Cirett wants to use his scans to improve ESL tutoring programs, but imagine if they could be extrapolated out everywhere. Every tricky situation could be scanned and, in less time than it takes to watch a YouTube commercial, you could know how it all turns out. Turn on the scanner and in less time than it takes to read this sentence, you could know whether or not you'll be building that IKEA desk successfully, or calling customer support in shame three hours later, after you've inescapably bolted yourself inside the Friggenblokr.
And if that's all too impractical, Cirett's study was partially funded by a firm that specializes in monitoring stress and fatigue in the Armed Forces. That's right: Sometime in the future, an unobtrusive little headset might be able to scan a soldier's brain and tell him whether or not he's going to make the right decision in the heat of battle.
"WARNING! Basket of puppies is not the enemy. Mistake imminent."
Or, perhaps more applicable to you, dear reader: It could tell you with scientific accuracy whether or not you're too hungover to handle class this morning.