Japanese researchers have developed a trick to implant false visions into people’s brains, altering the way they experience the world and potentially even the way they think. Describing the new technique in the journal Current Biology, the scientists reveal how they were able to achieve this effect without actively engaging with their subjects’ thoughts, instead prompting them to unwittingly warp their own sense of perception.
Speaking to Stat, lead researcher Takeo Watanabe explained that this simple brainwashing exercise could one day lead to new treatments for cognitive disorders such as depression and autism. By provoking people to rewire their own brains, he hopes to help patients strengthen certain healthy connections and erase other less desirable ones.
As a first step on this journey, the team sought to implant simple visual distortions into subjects’ minds, convincing them to see black grated lines as red. To do this, they asked them to focus on the lines while wired up to an fMRI machine that measured their brain activity.
At no point during the experiment were participants instructed to visualize the color red. Instead, they were simply told to “try to somehow regulate [their] brain activity” in order to make a solid grey circle – which they were informed would appear shortly afterwards – appear as large as possible.
As this was going on, the fMRI machines observed the activity in the primary and secondary visual areas of participants’ brains, with this data used to manipulate the size of the grey circle that then appeared. In other words, those whose brain patterns most closely resembled the type of activity associated with seeing the color red were shown larger circles, essentially convincing them that they were doing the exercise correctly and controlling their perception of the size of the circle.
Image: Participants ended up unwittingly activating certain patterns in the visual areas of their brains. Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock
Given that they were given no guidance on how to regulate their mental activity, each person had their own unique thoughts when carrying out the task – and, when asked, not one of them claimed to have visualized the color red. Nevertheless, after repeatedly carrying out the experiment more than 500 times over three days, volunteers soon began to get the gist of it, and regulated their mental functioning so that, whatever they were thinking about when looking at the black lines, the activity in their primary and secondary visual areas resembled patterns associated with the color red.
In the process, they unknowingly conditioned themselves to associate all grated lines with this type of brain activity, like crimson-slobbered Pavlov’s dogs.
The day after completing this intense associative learning task, the volunteers were shown a number of grated-line patterns of varying colors and asked to describe which colors they saw. Amazingly, those who had been the most successful during the first part of the experiment were more likely to perceive these lines as red, even when they were not. Perhaps more staggeringly, this effect was found to persist five months later.
There is of course a long way to go before this kind of mental trickery can be put to any practical use, although Watanabe hopes to one day use it to help people alter their own brain activity so that patterns associated with depression or autism are corrected. How achievable that is, however, will depend on the outcome of future studies.