Mental message story mangled


If you saw the recent story about “telepathic” communication in your daily newspaper you might have been confused. We were.

As far as you can figure it from the AFP report used by a number of papers, the story starts in India with a person wearing an EEG and thinking “hola” or “ciao”. The EEG evidently picks this up and translates the message into binary code. The code is emailed to France where it is fed into a machine that, sitting on the receiver’s head, delivers electronic pulses to make them see flashes of light.

The story gets a bit fuzzy here, because although these folk see the flashes, they “do not hear or see the words themselves.” But apparently this constitutes communication.
Inspection of the source paper, published on PLOS ONE, at least makes the experiment intelligible, though possibly somewhat less impressive than what you might have been thinking.

In fact, someone translates the word to be transmitted into binary code to start with, so the sender probably has no idea what message they’re sending. Rather, they watch a monitor that shows a bar shifting between the top and bottom of the screen. When it’s at the top they think about moving their hands, and when it’s at the bottom they think about moving their feet. That’s what the EEG picks up – hand thoughts become 1s and foot thoughts, 0s.

Then the string of 0s and 1s is emailed to France. They could have sent it to the next room, but, well, why not France?

There, in a part that the AFP got right, the 0s and 1s are automatically converted to a sequence of electronically induced flashes, or non-flashes, which the receivers experience from an apparatus mounted on their heads. So they get a run of “flash, flash, no flash, flash …” which I guess they call out and someone jots down with a paper and pencil.

Then you have to know if a flash is a 1 or a 0 (it’s a 1) and you’ve got the code. And then you have to decode that from the binary (why not Morse? it would have given it all a pleasing historical resonance) and then someone can say, “he says ‘ciao’”.

The point of it all is that you can send signals from one brain to another over long distances without any invasive procedures – just with a couple of fancy electronic hats connected by computers linked to the web. And I guess that’s quite interesting.

But it’s a long way from thinking “how’re’ya goin’ mate” in India and someone “receiving” “how’re’ya goin’ mate” in France.

“Not bad. How’re’ya goin’ y’self?”

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