The Science of Mind Reading

The Science of Mind Reading | Articles | Abakcus
Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

One night in October, 2009, a young man lay in an fMRI scanner in Liège, Belgium. Five years earlier, he’d suffered a head trauma in a motorcycle accident, and since then he hadn’t spoken. He was said to be in a “vegetative state.” A neuroscientist named Martin Monti sat in the next room, along with a few other researchers. For years, Monti and his postdoctoral adviser, Adrian Owen, had been studying vegetative patients, and they had developed two controversial hypotheses. First, they believed that someone could lose the ability to move or even blink while still being conscious; second, they thought that they had devised a method for communicating with such “locked-in” people by detecting their unspoken thoughts.

In a sense, their strategy was simple. Neurons use oxygen, which is carried through the bloodstream inside molecules of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin contains iron, and, by tracking the iron, the magnets in fMRI machines can build maps of brain activity. Picking out signs of consciousness amid the swirl seemed nearly impossible. But, through trial and error, Owen’s group had devised a clever protocol. They’d discovered that if a person imagined walking around her house there was a spike of activity in her parahippocampal gyrus—a finger-shaped area buried deep in the temporal lobe. Imagining playing tennis, by contrast, activated the premotor cortex, which sits on a ridge near the skull. The activity was clear enough to be seen in real time with an fMRI machine. In a 2006 study published in the journal Science, the researchers reported that they had asked a locked-in person to think about tennis, and seen, on her brain scan, that she had done so.

With the young man, known as Patient 23, Monti and Owen were taking a further step: attempting to have a conversation. They would pose a question and tell him that he could signal “yes” by imagining playing tennis, or “no” by thinking about walking around his house. In the scanner control room, a monitor displayed a cross-section of Patient 23’s brain. As different areas consumed blood oxygen, they shimmered red, then bright orange. Monti knew where to look to spot the yes and the no signals.

He switched on the intercom and explained the system to Patient 23. Then he asked the first question: “Is your father’s name Alexander?”

The man’s premotor cortex lit up. He was thinking about tennis—yes.

“Is your father’s name Thomas?”

Activity in the parahippocampal gyrus. He was imagining walking around his house—no.

“Do you have any brothers?”


“Do you have any sisters?”


“Before your injury, was your last vacation in the United States?”


The answers were correct. Astonished, Monti called Owen, who was away at a conference. Owen thought that they should ask more questions.

Ali Kaya


Ali Kaya

This is Ali. Bespectacled and mustachioed father, math blogger, and soccer player. I also do consult for global math and science startups.