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A Look Inside the Mind's Eye

Posted by Josh Rothman  September 26, 2011 03:00 PM

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It's finally happened: Neuroscientists at Berkeley have created a computer system which can figure out what you're seeing by looking at your brain activity with an fMRI scanner. Even more astonishing: They did it using YouTube!

How does it work? First, test subjects watched 100 movie trailers; a computer program learned to associate brain activity with each image. The researchers then fed 18 million seconds of YouTube clips through the system, asking it to work in reverse, predicting which brain activity the images would evoke. "Finally, the 100 clips that the computer program decided were most similar to the clip that the subject had probably seen were merged to produce a blurry yet continuous reconstruction of the original movie."

The ultimate goal is to use a system like this one to visualize mental imagery -- that is, to display on a computer monitor the images we picture in our imaginations. As Jack Gallant, one of the neuroscientists involved in the study, puts it: “We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.” More at UC Berkeley.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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