Posted on September 4, 2013 at 11:43 AM
by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
Last week, a research team at the University of Washington announced what they jokingly refered to as a “Vulcan mind meld.” For those of you who are not Star Trek aficionados, that fictional process is where a Vulcan can reach into the mind of another Vulcan or human to understand and read that other mind. In this real experiment, a subject wearing an electrode-filled cap thinks about moving a finger and across the lab, another student wearing a similar cap involuntarily moves a finger to press a button on a keyboard. (You can watch the video of the experiment here).
The researchers claim that this is the first time a human has sent a thought through the internet to another human brain. Previous studies have linked the brains of two rats and another even linked a human brain to a rat brain. Futurist Kevin Warwick says that he has used a link to share emotions with his wife through chips implanted in their nervous system, and to control a mechanical hand through the Internet, across the Atlantic.
The current research seems like a natural progression in brain-to-brain communication. The future implications are the stuff of science fiction such as in the Loud As A Whisper episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where a deaf ambassador has a three-person chorus mentally linked with him who act as his ears and voice. Or James Cameron’s Avatar film where a paraplegic marine gains mobility by mentally linking with an avatar. Think about a person with “locked-in” syndrome who could be wired to a robot or to another person and use that other entity as a medium through which to interact with the world.
While this research is certainly fascinating to the techno-geek in all of us, what is remarkable about this study is how the results were shared. Traditionally, scientific breakthroughs would be written into an article or abstract and submitted to a journal. After a peer view (and rewriting) process the article may be published in a scholarly journal. Often about a week before the journal issue is released, the journal and/or university would issue a press release to journalists who may then choose to report on the study.
This time, the researchers and the university released the results of the experiment through a press release before crafting an article for scientific publication. Sensational headlines declared, Vulcan mind meld: UW scientists connect two brains via the internet,” “Scientists achieve first human-to-human mind meld,” and “Researchers explore benefits of illusive “Vulcan mind meld” (print title). The researchers claimed they took this unusual step because they are working in a competitive field and wanted to establish credit for their work as soon as possible. What likely grabbed reporters attention wasn’t the experiment itself, but the researchers (even jokingly) referring this accomplishment as a “Vulcan mind meld.” It certainly was one of the reasons that I read the story.
The researchers felt that time was of the essence and since they had video of the study that the finding “could stand on its own.” This might be another way of saying that they believe no one could dispute their findings because it was caught on video. One must be suspicious, however. In the video, you see the first subject sitting and doing nothing while a second person (and the video provides no way to know if the actions are synchronous) tap a keyboard. The yelling of “Success” is heard in the background. The person whose finger moved claimed that he felt a “nervous tic.” Could that be subjective? Could the fact that the participants were part of the research staff have influenced the results? Apparently the researchers think not.
Scientists have a responsibility to be professional in their work, and to be accurate and precise when communicating with the media. Many graduate schools have instituted programs to train students and faculty in speaking with the media and politicians. Rather than being the modest step this project claims to represent, the use of the term “Vulcan mind meld” elicits in the public imagination images of their bodies being controlled by another person from a distance. Could the boss be inhabiting my body and controlling my movements so that I do exactly what she/he wants?
Over the last few decades, scientists’ pressure to be first to announce a discovery has increased beyond what it used to be. Being first gains one a reputation for cutting edge work, which can lead to promotion, tenure, jobs at higher ranked universities, and dollars from grant agencies and private foundations. The pressure to be first may also influence some scientists to circumvent the scientific process and in some cases to fall into scientific misconduct.
Many of the media articles have stated that unnamed bioethicists “have raised concerns about more controversial uses.” None of the articles go on to explain what those concerns are or who the bioethicists mentioned might be. Other researchers called the notice a “publicity stunt.” Maybe it is, or maybe they have sour grapes because they were not first.
As the Chicago Tribune reported, the experiment has not been independently verified. The downside to going straight to the media is the lack of verification; lack of peer-review, and subversion of the scientific process to ensure the discovery is actually what is claims to be. The results in this case may be real or they may not be. But there is something wrong with the scientific enterprise when the first instinct is to submit your work to the court of public opinion rather than to the scrutiny of your peers. The scientific method with its system of checks and balances takes time, but also helps to ensure accuracy and precision. Whether this announcement represents a new trend for popularizing science without rigor, or whether it was a one-time media stunt is unknown. Only time and peer-review can tell.