How does the brain compute language? Will it turn us into cyborgs?

Though neurology has made great strides in the past two decades, the brain is still the least understood organ in the body. How does it make thoughts? Even though research has not yet answered that question, a few intrepid scientists think that we will soon be able to communicate with machines using only our minds.

A recent New York Times article explains that this ambitious project is more straight-forward than it sounds, because the area of the brain that helps us talk is relatively small, only a few centimeters.  It is called Broca’s area after the neurologist Pierre Paul Broca who discovered that his patients with speech problems had lesions in the brain in this highly concentrated region. Broca’s area sits on the left side of the brain toward the front.

(Does brain ever confuse language with sight? Yes, it’s called synesthesia. Read more about it here.)

To put it simply, Broca’s area transforms thoughts into words. Even though other regions of the brain are  important because they allow us to understand pictures, to move our right hand, to remember what our mom looks like, when it comes to “reading your mind” only the language region matters. For example, when you say, “I went to the store yesterday” your brain may recall an image of the store, and you might think about moving your legs or picking up bananas, but the words you use come out of Broca’s area exclusively. Because thoughts are envisioned as language in our brains, a computer chip or external device only has to read that small spot, not the whole brain.

A team at Dartmouth has already developed an external device (meaning not inside your head) based on EEG signals. When worn, the contraption can call up an image of a particular figure from a pre-programmed list of possibilities. If you think Bill Clinton, a picture of Bill Clinton will appear on your phone. The team hopes to develop this technology into a sort of app that allows you to dial your phone just by thinking of a name in your address book.

What do you think about reading our brains?

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