20 Questions: These Gamers Played via Mind Reading

September 30, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Study participant wears an electroncephalography (EEG) cap that records brain activity
Photo credit: Courtesy of the University of Washington

For the first time ever, gamers were hooked up to equipment to see if they could play a game of telepathic 20 questions, and it worked.

The 20 questions game is a staple when passing the time in a long car ride, but two gamers added an insane twist to the game; instead of asking and answering questions aloud, they read each other’s minds. This is the first time in history that research has shown two brains can be linked up to communicate thoughts back and forth. By building on this monumental study, we might one day achieve the seemingly impossible — telepathy.

"This is the most complex brain-to-brain experiment, I think, that's been done to date in humans," lead author Andrea Stocco, assistant professor of psychology and a researcher at University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, said in a press release.

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If you’re a skeptic, you might be thinking of all the other ways humans can communicate without actual words: eye contact, facial expressions, gestures. But the players were separated by about 1.5 km in two different buildings, so the communication was strictly through genuine mind reading.

One participant, the “respondent,” wore an electroencephalography (EEG) cap that records brain activity — in this case, the answers to the questions asked by the other participant, or the “inquirer.” A magnetic coil was positioned around the inquirer’s head, and then the exchange of questions and answers began.

The respondent would think of something specific during each round — say, an elephant — and the inquirer would click on a yes or no question on a computer to start the process of elimination. For instance, if the inquirer selected the question, “Is the object an animal?” it would then pop up on the respondent’s screen.

There was no clicking involved for the respondent, however. It was all brain work. Depending on the answer, the respondent would concentrate on one of two LED lights — one signaling yes and the other no.

Signaling “yes,” would release a pulse from the magnetic coil on the inquirer’s head, stimulating a phosphene, or a visual hallucination that looks like a flash of light or a bright wavy line. If the answer was “no,” the coil still stimulated the same scalp-tingling sensations, but it didn’t release a pulse strong enough to trigger a phosphene. So the inquirer could determine the respondent’s answers by accurately reading the signals being sent to his brain.

The participants successfully guessed the object 72 percent of the time, and researchers speculate that the incorrect guesses were a result of the participant not recognizing the phosphene correctly. To confirm their findings, the researchers also tested the participants in a control round where they thought they were communicating, but in reality, no data was being sent. In this round, they only correctly guessed the object 18 percent of the time.

The researchers’ next goal is to test out the possibility of transmitting brain states, which could potentially help struggling students.

"Imagine having someone with ADHD and a neurotypical student," said co-author Chantel Prat, a faculty member at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and a UW associate professor of psychology. "When the non-ADHD student is paying attention, the ADHD student's brain gets put into a state of greater attention automatically."

While mind reading is unarguably a sci-fi fantasy we’ve all been hoping for, it has the potential to influence the world beyond the scope of simply being awesome. But admittedly, we’re all most likely dreaming of the day when telepathic communication replaces the need for phones calls, emails, and texts — especially group texts. Sorry, Apple.

Check out the experiment in action below:


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