Several U.S. citizens provided comments at a recent Presidential Bioethics Commission meeting, and alleged that the U.S. government was conducting illegal secret mind control experiments and deploying secret neurotechnologies as weapons, including mind reading and remote targeting to cause physical and psychological pain and injury. See this page.
A question from the audience referred to the History Channel program, The History Channel, That's Impossible series, episode 6, titled Mind Control, August 11, 2009. The questioner described a section of the program that “showed a mute paraplegic where they had implanted a chip in his throat.
His thoughts were going onto a computer screen.” When a person thinks, the thoughts are reflected in the electrical/mechanical activity of the vocal apparatus, which can be detected and translated into words. This technology was demonstrated on the History Channel Program.
Dr. Farah replied to the questioner and stated that advanced precise, real time mind reading was “a million light years away.” Even mind control victims agree that by today’s unclassified neuroscience literature, mind reading is not possible. Dr. Farah further stated: “One does sense microscopic movements in the vocal apparatus and basically looks at subvocalization. It’s basically a way of just using speech that you can’t hear. I think it would be a cheat to call that mind reading.” But in fact, human experiments
have demonstrated that microscopic movements in the vocal apparatus occur for mental activities including imagination, recollection and abstract thinking See Jacobson, E., Physiological Laboratory of the University of Chicago (1931). Electrical measurements of neuromuscular states during mental activities: VII. Imagination, recollection and abstract thinking involving the speech musculature. American Journal of Physiology, 97, 200-209.
This 1931 scientific article is available in any medical library. (Referenced in the 1997 book Mind and Brain Sciences in the 21st Century edited by Robert Solso, Chapter 3 Will the Mind Become the Brain in the 21st Century? by Richard F. Thompson, p. 40) Jacobson recorded electromyography activity from the tongue and was able to determine from this measure whether the subject was thinking of the word “one” or “two” or “three.” (Jacobson, p.207). The experiment conclusion stated: “During imagination, recollection
and concrete or abstract thinking involving words or numbers, muscular contractions characteristically appear as specific components of the physiologic process of mental activity. These contractions generally are minute but sometimes are grossly visible.” (Jacobson, p.209).
The History Channel program made clear that subvocalization is not about reading thoughts; see the transcript. The experimenter stated:
We often get asked if the audio picks up thinking or my thoughts. And the answer is no, definitely not. You may be thinking right now about things like that you have to go to the bank later today or you’re hungry. But unless you have an actual desire to communicate those things, then there’s no activity for us to pick up.
But the 1931 experiment stated otherwise, as did Solso's book which unequivocally stated:
It is indeed the case that thinking in normal adult humans is accompanied by movement of the vocal apparatus: subvocal speech. Jacobson recorded electromyography activity from the tongue and was able to determine from this measure whether the subject was thinking of the word “one” or “two” or “three.” (Jacobson, 1931). (Soslo, p. 40).
As this academic psychology book by Solso explained below, this technology was successfully proven to work in 1931. The lesson to learn from this is not that a highly esteemed expert and the History Channel can be wrong but rather, the possibility of secret illegal mind control experiments using such a technology is scientifically possible and should be thoroughly and impartially investigated.
MIT Press published the 1997 book Mind and Brain Sciences in the 21st Century edited by Robert Solso, a collection of chapters on 20th century psychology and predictions about the future of psychology. One chapter by Richard F. Thompson is titled Will the Mind Become the Brain in the 21st Century? Thompson described the same thought reading technology that the questioner and Dr. Farah described above. But first, Solso described Thompson and his work. Solso also provides
a glimpse of the controversy among scientists over whether the mystery of consciousness will ever be solved. Dr. Farah also alluded to this scientific uncertainty when she made her “million light years away” comment. Solso wrote:
Thompson, one of the world's leading neuroscientists, was hard iron forged in the crucible of the “dustbowl of empiricism” at the University of Wisconsin by the hands of Harry Harlow, Wulf Brogden, and David Grant, who were shaped in turn by the hand of Watson. So it is consistent with his background that Thompson would introduce behaviorism, the yoke cognitive psychologists though they had successfully disposed of several decades ago, by quoting Watson's surprisingly reasonable, albeit entirely internally consistent
notion that phenomena like “consciousness” and “mind” might be measurable even though, presently, they can only be observed indirectly by (you guess it) measuring behavior.
How might the “secret thoughts” of consciousness--such thoughts as a young man or woman might have while on a first date--be behaviorally measured outside of introspection, which when vocalized is “behavior?” Thompson's view on the matter is that they might be measured by “recording the electrical/mechanical activity of the vocal apparatus” which is a consequence of neuronal process that “is” thoughts. Thompson expands the range of behaviorism by pointing out that the “important advances made in cognitive psychology
are all due entirely to careful measures of behavior.” And who could argue with that point? How else could the inner workings of the mind be observed? Yet, there is an inner voice in me that whispers, No one can ever tell (or measure) your conscious thoughts, not even Alan Gevins's home EEG machine. It would seem that Watsonian “behaviorism” and “cognitive psychologists” share some common features and, as Smith implies, during the innocent early days of cognitive psychology, measurements of memory were based
on performance, not the underlying neural function. (Solso, 308-309)
Richard F. Thompson, in the chapter titled Will the Mind Become the Brain in the 21st Century?, wrote about sub vocal speech and included this footnote: Jacobson, E. (1931). Electrical measurements of neuromuscular states during mental activities: VII. Imagination, recollection and abstract thinking involving the speech musculature. American Journal of Physiology, 97, 200-209. Thompson wrote:
If any one feature characterizes the modern “cognitive revolution” in psychology it is the profusion of loose writing and thinking about the “mind,” what Skinner (1990) referred to as the “ghost in the machine.” To me, the current situation is somewhat reminiscent of the state of introspectionism in psychology at the time when John B. Watson was required to describe the sensations, feelings, and thoughts of his rats as they learned to traverse a maze for his Ph.D. thesis ( see Boring, 1929; Kimble, 1994). My
field is behavioral neuroscience, the attempt to understand the neurobiological substrates of behavior. I was trained in a thoroughly behavioristic tradition in the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, the heyday of such distinguished behavioral scientists such as Harry Harlow, Wulf Brogden, and David Grant. At that time the department was known far and wide as the “dustbowl of empiricism,” a description that pleased Harlow so much he had a chamber pot so inscribed displayed prominently
in his office.
I begin my discussion of brain and mind with my favorite quotation from John Watson’s “Psychology as the Behaviorist View it” (1913). After stressing that measurable behavior is the proper object of study in psychology, he says:
Will there be left over in psychology a world of pure psychics, to use Yerkes’ term? I confess I do not know. The plans which I most favor for psychology lead practically to the ignoring of consciousness in the sense that the term is used by psychologists today. I have virtually denied that this realm of psychics is open to experimental investigation. I don’t wish to go further into the problem at present because it leads inevitably over into metaphysics. If you will grant the behaviorist the right to use consciousness
in the same way that other natural scientists employ it--that is, without making consciousness a special object of observation--you have granted all that my thesis requires. (Watson, 1913, p.175)
Watson’s statement can hardly be called doctrinaire and must come as a surprise to those ardent cognitive scientists who decry behaviorism. The basic point he makes, and it is the thesis of my chapter, is that terms like “consciousness” and “mind” do not refer to phenomena that are in principle unmeasurable. At present, they can only be studied indirectly by measuring behavior, verbal and otherwise. By “a special object of observation” I believe Watson had in mind the method of introspection and the view then
prevalent in psychology that mind/consciousness was somehow nonphysical, the traditional mind-body dualism. As Watson notes, this “leads inevitably over into metaphysics.” The view of mind as nonphysical cannot of course be entertained in science.
My editor and colleague in the field, Robert Solso, is of the opinion that there is more to consciousness than meets the eye, that is, than is measurable: “this more difficult form of consciousness deals with ʻinner thoughts’ which are jealously concealed from observation. Such things as what a boy (or girl) might be thinking while on a date or a student may be thinking while talking with his professor. It is the private world of consciousness that poses the major issue in contemporary psychology, not the one
that can be measured by implicit memory experiments and priming ...” Solso (personal communication, 1 February 1996).
Watson actually provided the solution to this issue of private thought many years ago with his motor theory of thought. Again, to quote Watson: “The hypothesis that all of the so called ‘higher thought processes’ go on in terms of faint reinstatements of the original muscular act (including speech here) and that these are interpreted into systems which respond in serial order ( associative mechanisms) is I believe, a tenable one.” (Watson, 1913, P. 174).
It is indeed the case that thinking in normal adult humans is accompanied by movement of the vocal apparatus: subvocal speech. Jacobson recorded electromyography activity from the tongue and was able to determine from this measure whether the subject was thinking of the word “one” or “two” or “three.” (Jacobson, 1931).
The more extreme Watsonian view that these movements, per se, are thought is probably not correct (see Thompson, 1994). But to return to Solso’s point, so-called thought can indeed be measured by recording the electrical/mechanical activity of the vocal apparatus, activated in turn by the neuronal processes that “are” the thoughts. Again, my thesis is that there is nothing more to thoughts that neural activity and its outward expressions in behavior.
Jacobson, E. (1931). Electrical measurements of neuromuscular states during mental activities: VII. Imagination, recollection and abstract thinking involving the speech musculature. American Journal of Physiology, 97, 200-209. (Solso, 39-41)
The Commission meeting excerpt is below. The relevant excerpt of Dr. Farah’s talk is posted on the Presidential Bioethics Commission website here: http://www.bioethics.gov/transcripts/ethics-of-genetics-and-neuroimaging-testing/022811/ethics-of-emerging-diagnostic-and-predictive-tools.html. The panel discussion took place February 28, 2011 and was titled: Ethics of Emerging Diagnostic and Predictive Tools.
Martha Farah, Ph.D. : Walter H. Annenberg Professor in Natural Sciences; Professor of Psychology; Director, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience; Director, Center for Neuroscience and Society; Senior Fellow, Center for Bioethics
University of Pennsylvania
— and I’m just here because I’m interested. My question is for Dr. Farah. You mentioned that we’re a long way from mind reading. Yet, a couple of years ago I saw on the History Channel they showed a mute paraplegic where they had implanted a chip in his throat.
His thoughts were going onto a computer screen. Maybe I’m confused as to the difference between mind reading and being able to capture human thoughts onto the screen. I’ll let you respond.
Great question. Thanks.
Okay. Well, I’m thinking there are two possible technologies that you — again, it’s very strange to talk to somebody with your back to them. Forgive me, Lisa. There are two possible technologies that you could be talking about.
One does sense microscopic movements in the vocal apparatus and basically looks at subvocalization. It’s basically a way of just using speech that you can’t hear. I think it would be a cheat to call that mind reading.
There have also been some early human trials of chips implanted in the brain on parts of motor cortex that allow a paralyzed person to move a robotic arm or move a cursor on a screen or type a message on a computer screen using thought alone by basically learning to kind of think about movements and direct the cursor or the robotic arm accordingly.
There is a sense in which that’s mind reading but consider this. It’s basically translating brain activity into movement in at most three-dimensional space. Nontrivial but, you know, to read a thought like Hank is thinking now, “Oh, poor Martha. She blew it again. She went over and the Chairman had to tell her to end early.”
That kind of thought if you think of it as a spatial analogy is a point or a path in an extremely high dimensional space. All the different dimensions of meaning and intention that a person could conceive of, that is what we are a million lights years away from doing.