Revealing secret intentions in the brain

Press release from the Max Planck Institute (8 Feb):

Our secret intentions remain concealed until we put them into action -so we believe. Now researchers have been able to decode these secret intentions from patterns of their brain activity. They let subjects freely and covertly choose between two possible tasks – to either add or subtract two numbers. They were then asked to hold in mind their intention for a while until the relevant numbers were presented on a screen. The researchers were able to recognize the subjects intentions with 70% accuracy based alone on their brain activity – even before the participants had seen the numbers and had started to perform the calculation.

[…] The work of Haynes and his colleagues goes far beyond simply confirming previous theories. It has never before been possible to read out of brain activity how a person has decided to act in the future.

This press release prompted a piece in the UK Guardian (9 Feb) that explored both the research and the possible applications of this knowledge:

The latest work reveals the dramatic pace at which neuroscience is progressing, prompting the researchers to call for an urgent debate into the ethical issues surrounding future uses for the technology. If brain-reading can be refined, it could quickly be adopted to assist interrogations of criminals and terrorists, and even usher in a “Minority Report” era (as portrayed in the Steven Spielberg science fiction film of that name), where judgments are handed down before the law is broken on the strength of an incriminating brain scan.”These techniques are emerging and we need an ethical debate about the implications, so that one day we’re not surprised and overwhelmed and caught on the wrong foot by what they can do. These things are going to come to us in the next few years and we should really be prepared,” Professor Haynes told the Guardian.


  • John-Dylan Haynes, Katsuyuki Sakai, Geraint Rees, Sam Gilbert, Chris Frith, Dick Passingham (2007). Reading hidden intentions in the human brain. Current Biology, February 20th, 2007 (online: February 8th). PDF and HTML full text freely available (as of 9 Feb 07)

One thought on “Revealing secret intentions in the brain”

  1. Being able to tap into someone’s mind is an incredible scientific breakthrough. Technology has really come far. However, to say that hidden intentions can be read with looking at patterns of brain activity raises red flags in a skeptics mind. If, like you mention, in the future this tool may be used in criminal interrogations, how sure can we be that this technology will not yield the same results the lie detector test did? A human mind is very complicated and to think that a machine could tell you what a person is going to do before he or she does it is very difficult to determine. From personal experience I can say that my intentions are many, however my actions are often times completely different than what my initial intentions were. This poses the question of accuracy and reliability. The lie detector test is currently not admissible in many jurisdictions due to the great percentage of false positives it yields, it seems that technology of this capacity would produce the same results. And the last thing we need is more innocent people in jail.

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