Reading minds has always been at the forefront of science fiction and fantasy genres. Talk about a cool superpower, right? Well, now, reading minds might not be so fictional anymore. Scientists may have discovered a way to predict your thoughts—and they know what you’re thinking even before you do. 

Mind-reading? For real?

In a recent study by Professor Pearson at the University of South Wales, participants were told to imagine a pattern of either vertical or horizontal colored lines. After deciding which pattern to imagine, participants then pushed a button indicating which pattern they had chosen (they later also pushed buttons indicating how strong their pattern was). In many cases, the researchers were able to predict which pattern the participants would pick— sometimes up to 11 seconds before the participants made a conscious decision!

How?

Pearson and his researchers used fMRI imaging to track brain patterns as the participants were making their decisions. Based on those images, scientists were able to predict which pattern the participants would choose. The brain scans often revealed subconscious processes, so the scientists could see which pattern the participants were leaning towards before the participants had made a conscious decision.

Researchers were also able to verify the timing of the decision, so they knew that participants were not simply delaying pressing the button after they’d made their choice; which meant that the scientists were, in fact, reading their minds before they themselves had consciously decided on one pattern or the other.

Is priming the key?

After the study was released, certain other scientists and media outlets argued that the test proved we lack free will and that our actions and thoughts are predetermined. Pearson argued, however, that that is incorrect. Firstly, because the predictions that happened before the participants’ conscious decisions were only accurate a little over 50% of the time. And secondly, because Pearson argues that what was the biggest influencer was, perhaps, priming.

Priming is when your brain subconsciously picks up signals, which ‘primes’ it for future thoughts and decisions. As Pearson stated, for example, if you were asked about a bank, you would think about a place to keep money. But if you were shown a picture of a river first, you may instead think of a riverbank.

For many participants, the pattern was present in their subconscious before they realized it, and Pearson believes this subconscious bias was key in allowing himself and his team to make their predictions. So it’s not a lack of free will that’s making the participants so predictable, but just an unconscious bias towards one pattern or another.

Implications

While some may be trying to use the results of this study to prove we don’t have free will, Pearson and his team have other ideas. The research, he believes, provides valuable insight into the inner workings of the subconscious mind and how we might be able to study it (as well, of course, as predict its future thoughts and decisions). He hopes that this will enable scientists to delve deeper into the workings behind post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and therefore better understand it.

Sufferers of PTSD often report that they feel they lack control of the content of their mental energy, as well as the strength. Pearson hopes that this study, with its ability to read and predict both content and strength, will enable scientists to help those who suffer from the disease.

For the rest of us, we can watch from afar as scientists continue to make great strides towards helping people who suffer from PTSD. And, we can watch as we get ever-closer to living out our favorite science-fiction novels. Who knows? Telepathy might not be so far away.