5 Bizarre Ways Brain Scans Can Predict the Future
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.
Catching Future Terrorists ... Literally
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.
What Makes You Buy Things (And How to Exploit It)
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.
Predicting Your Problem Solving Success (Or Failure)
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.
The Likelihood of Your Party Animalism
Scientists at UC San Diego have done some comprehensive brain scans on teenagers and discovered something amazing: They all like masturbation and don't have very good taste. (Which might be why they're all reading Cracked. Hi, dudes! Radical! Uh ... skateboarding!)
Oh, and it also managed to suss out exactly which ones were going to become heavy drinkers in a few years. We guess that's pretty important too.
For instance, this man's children will most definitely resort to booze.
Yes, the brains of adolescents who would later engage in regular binge drinking actually had different activity patterns than those of their peers -- and well before the drinking ever started.
The experiment was conducted over a period of three years, wherein scientists gathered a group of 12-year-olds and began conducting MRIs on them. We'd love to know the exact wording of this request -- the one that convinced a whole bunch of parents to enroll their children in a long-term study regarding whether or not their brains put them at risk for a crippling addiction. We assume it started with approaching new parents and suavely whispering, "You guys look like you like to party ..."
"The crushing, inescapable urge to mask my shortcomings with vodka."
The actual experiment had the children working on a memory challenge while the MRI scan was being conducted. The researchers would flash a set of dots, wait for a little bit, then flash the set again and quiz the kids on the differences in color. The adolescents who would later engage in binge drinking showed less activity in the frontal and parietal regions of their brains (the areas associated with executive functions like problem solving) -- which is what you'd expect, right? The duller children fall victim to vice and addiction earlier. But that's not what's happening here. After three years, those same teenagers showed increasing activity in those regions, when decreasing brain activity over time is the norm.
In other words, something was turning on in their brains that didn't turn on in the normal kids, and that something may have some sort of correlation to their drinking later in life. Although keep in mind, this isn't necessarily alcoholism we're talking about here -- this is just episodic binge drinking (i.e. consuming five or more drinks in one sitting). As long as these kids aren't pulling a Leaving Las Vegas in their early 20s, we're going to go ahead and say that mysterious increase in brain activity is just their Party Lobe powering up like a Super-Saiyan in preparation for college.
Artificially Generating a Sixth Sense
When we see things, it takes a few seconds for us to consciously understand what that thing is, exactly. There is a very short period of time between the brain receiving an image and the brain processing said image in a meaningful fashion. For the most part, it doesn't matter: You might open the fridge and stand perplexed for a moment, wondering what the frig this oblong white container is before recognizing that it's yogurt and putting it back in disgust. But whenever we see something dangerous, it sends out the P300 brainwave (you remember; the terrorist wave from earlier.)
Tracking that wave can mean something substantially more important than spotting yogurt before some accidentally gets in your mouth. If only there was some way to speed the image-to-danger-recognition process up, our soldiers could spot threats instantly and effectively gain superpowers.
"Either Al Qaeda's behind that hill ... or I've got a sinus headache."
And that's exactly what DARPA did. Meet Sentinel, which stands for "SystEm for Notification of Threats Inspired by Neurally Enabled Learning." Sentinel is the working designation for a pair of "cognitive-neural binoculars." This sounds like Star Trek gibberish at first, but the description is actually pretty accurate: When you put on a Sentinel rig and scan a battlefield, anything your brain registers as dangerous instantly triggers a series of flashing lights. Never again will one of our brave soldiers comically double-take over an enemy sniper pointing a barrel of death right at him. Because, technically speaking, his brain knows that threat is there well before his uh ... brain ... realizes it, we guess?
Whatever. All that matters is that it really works. When they tested Sentinel against regular ol' stupid binoculars, the Sentinel soldiers found 30 percent more threats on the battlefield. That's right: They were a full third more likely to sense imminent danger than a normal, unassisted human being. That's friggin' Spidey Sense!
"Psychic? Oh, no, I'm just getting a migraine. The gestures are exactly the same -- it can't be helped."
Now, if we could just get DARPA to fund our Military Web Shooters and Pun Generation Mouthpiece, we could have Battle Spider-Men deployed within the decade.
Agneeth can be contacted at Agneeth152@gmail.com. XJ is an aspiring cyborg, and in his free-time he talks about the adventures of writing on his blog. Also, he'll love you for a whole minute if you follow him on Twitter.
For more ways the future is upon us, check out 5 Famous Sci-Fi Weapons That They're Actually Building and 6 Sci-Fi Technologies You'll Soon Have on Your Phone.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 3 Science Fictions We Really Just Built.
And stop by LinkSTORM to discover why you're already a binge-drinking alcoholic.
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