With a blindfold covering his eyes, and earplugs cancelling out almost all sound, Dr Michel Berg sat in a state-of-the-art laboratory at the University of Strasbourg in north-eastern France, and began to think.
Nearly 5,000 miles away, at a research facility in the Indian city of Kerala, a young Spanish man called Dr Alejandro Riera pulled on a tightly fitting hat, placed a laptop computer on a white table, and also began to think.
Over the course of the next hour, on March 28 this year, the 51-year-old Dr Berg and his faraway counterpart would attempt something that had only previously occurred in the exotic realms of science fiction.
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The two men aimed to send a simple message between each other, across the continents, without using any of the five senses that human beings — and indeed animals — have for millennia used to communicate.
They instead hoped to achieve what scientists call ‘mind-to-mind direct technological communication’ — and the rest of us would recognise by a single, tantalising word: telepathy.
The experiment in speaking via ‘thought’ happened in conditions of absolute secrecy. Until recently, only a small team numbering a dozen researchers (including Dr Berg and Dr Riera) were even aware of its existence.
That all changed a few days ago, however, when PLOS ONE, a website little known outside academia, published a peer-reviewed scientific paper detailing its outcome.
The report is lengthy and jargon-ridden. But to a layman, its findings seem little short of sensational. For on that afternoon in March, Dr Berg and Dr Riera were indeed able to achieve ‘conscious brain-to-brain communication’.
This, in layman’s terms, means they carried out the first scientifically documented telepathic conversation in human history.
The exchange was nothing if not brief. The duo shared just two words: the Spanish greeting ‘hola’, and the Italian ‘ciao’.
Yet what it might have lacked in colour and complexity, it surely made up for in potential historic importance.
‘We have shown that it is possible to send a mental message between two people, without using sight, touch, sound, taste or smell,’ Dr Berg told me yesterday.
‘This is of course early days, but the discovery could eventually have a profound impact on civilisation.’
The possibilities of telepathy are, indeed, endless.
Dr Berg believes that in the coming decades, it could be used to help stroke victims, extreme paraplegics, and sufferers of ‘locked-in syndrome’ to speak and move again, using their brains to transmit instructions either to other people or to artificial limbs.
‘Take someone in a coma,’ he says. ‘At the moment, it is not possible to tell what they might want. This could open up the possibility of being able to communicate with them.’
A way from the field of medicine, soldiers may one day be able to use telepathy to speak across a noisy battlefield, without having to rely on radio or satellite equipment that could break, or be intercepted by their enemies. Families could use it to have conversations without needing a telephone.
In a vaguely Orwellian realm, which raises profound ethical questions, policemen might use it to find a way to read the minds of potential criminals, and courts could ensure witnesses are telling the truth. We may even be able to communicate with the dead (if a way is found to keep their brains ‘alive’).
‘This is the first step towards opening a new way of allowing direct communication between brains,’ says Dr Carles Grau, a professor at the University of Barcelona, who worked on the project. ‘New legal protocols will of course one day be necessary to regulate the complexity of a future brain-to-brain civilisation.’
The concept of telepathy is as old as the hills. Psychics, for example, claim to be able to read the minds of strangers. Mothers often experience ugly premonitions when something unfortunate has happened to their child.
Long before the era of mobiles and ‘caller ID’, many people claimed to be able to predict which friend was calling when they heard the telephone ring.
There are also endless examples of identical twins claiming to experience the same feelings and emotions, and make similar life decisions, despite being miles, or even continents apart — sometimes without having ever met.
Perhaps the most famous example concerns James Lewis and James Springer, identical twins put up for adoption in Ohio in the Forties.
They met for the first time aged 39, and discovered that they had both married women called Linda before divorcing them and re-marrying women called Betty. They had identical qualifications and jobs, and each called their dog ‘Toy’.
Dr Berg’s experiment — a collaboration between Spanish research organisation Starlab, Harvard University, and a robotics firm called Axilum — does not prove psychic powers do, or don’t, exist. Neither does it show that uncanny events from history involved anything more than a coincidence.
What it does demonstrate, however, is brain-to-brain communication can take place. The complex experiment involved powerful computers, robots, and an odd-looking skull-cap that measures electrical currents in the brain. It started in India, where Dr Riera wore the cap, which is properly known as an EEG (electro-encephalograph), while imagining he was making a series of either horizontal or vertical movements.
The mental effort he made to execute each type of virtual ‘movement’ sent one of two sorts of electric pulse into the EEG.
The machine translated one of those pulses into the figure 1, and the other into a 0, thus creating a digital binary code — rather like Morse code — which he was able to build up to represent the letters of the alphabet he was trying to generate.
H is communication of ‘hola’ and ‘ciao’ took half an hour of intense concentration to complete. It was then emailed via his laptop to France.
In the Strasbourg laboratory, Dr Berg and two fellow ‘receivers’ were meanwhile blindfolded and hooked up to a machine, which converted the binary message into pulses of electricity sent to the occipital lobe of their brains, the region that governs sight.
When the pulses were fired, they then experienced ‘phosphenes’ or white flashes on the periphery of their vision. Different pulses corresponded with either the number ‘one’ or ‘zero’. The phosphenes could be converted back by the ‘receiver’ into binary code, and from there once more into the words ‘hola’ and ‘ciao’, in a process that took another half hour.
‘We obviously weren’t sure that it would work,’ says Dr Berg. ‘It was a dark room, and we were concentrating very hard, and it wasn’t until afterwards that we learned that the message had been communicated with between 90 and 95 per cent accuracy.’
Of course, there is a world of difference between being able to communicate two four-letter words over the course of an hour, and having a complex conversation. Dr Berg believes we are perhaps 20 years from being able to develop useful applications for the technique.
Others think we are still further away. And there has also been some carping in scientific circles that Dr Berg and his colleagues have over-stated the importance of their research. After all, rival neuroscientists have in recent years made huge progress towards being able to harness the power of people’s thoughts.
Last year, Harvard scientists made a rat’s tail twitch when its brain was connected electronically to a man who thought about the tail twitching. In August, wonks at the University of Washington executed a human brain-to-brain communication when a man moved another man’s hand by thinking about it.
This experiment marks, however, the first time actual words have been communicated from one person’s brain directly to another’s. So no matter where the discovery might lead, one thing seems inevitable: keeping your thoughts to yourself is about to get a whole lot harder.
We have shown that it is possible to send a mental message between two people, without using sight, touch, sound, taste or smell.
This is of course early days, but the discovery could eventually have a profound impact on civilisation.