Neuroscientists Discover That Each Person You Meet Conjures a Pattern Inside Your Brain

A Japanese study found that they could even tell what subjects were dreaming about. 

Brain scans are often portrayed as intrusive devices in dystopian films, used to extract secret information. A member of a resistance movement, for instance, is strapped down to a chair and has their brain scanned as they struggle against their restraints. They fight it as long as they can, but in the end, the face of their leader is finally revealed. Though such a day is still a ways off, neuroscientists at Cornell University have made significant progress towards it, the ability to tell what person a subject is thinking about simply by scanning their brain.  


Scientists used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to conduct the study. Nathan Spreng is the cognitive neuroscientist who led this research. He and his team wanted to know if they could use brain scanning technology to see who a subject was picturing in their head. Spreng told Scientific American, “We are trying to understand the physical mechanisms that allow us to have an inner world, and a part of that is how we represent other people in our mind.”

First, Spreng and his team recruited 19 participants. They were each given four different character profiles. These were fictional characters but researchers told participants that they were real people. Under an fMRI, the scientists discovered that different patterns emerged in a particular region of the brain depending on which person he or she was thinking about. These patterns varied depending on the personality traits of the person thought of.

Half of the characters had agreeable personalities. Participants were told things like, this person is cooperative and likes to help others. The other half were disagreeable. Recruits were told such and such person had a cold demeanor and weren’t likely to pitch in. They were also told that half of the characters were extroverts while the other half were introverts. Researchers gave each character a gender and a common name such as Ashley, Jenny, Nicole, Sarah, Nick, Chris, Mike, or Dave.

An image created by an fMRI brain scan.

Volunteers soon had their brains scanned and were asked to think of one of the people described. Spreng and colleagues paid particular attention to activity inside the brain, by monitoring alterations in blood flow. Next, respondents were asked how each character would behave in one of several different situations, such as if they spilled a drink on someone in a bar, or were approached by a homeless veteran who was panhandling.

Spreng and colleagues found that each of the people described to participants formed a particular pattern inside their medial prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain helps us to notice and understand the personality traits of those around us. For every person you’ve met in your life, Spreng says, there is a “unique representation in the brain.”

The study implies that when we get a grasp of someone’s personality, we encode this data for later recall, and update it periodically as new information arises. This helps us understand those around us better, and allows us to make predictions based on their personality and past behavior.

This part of the brain is also related to autism, which may be why the autistic often have problems interacting socially. According to these findings, they may not have the ability to recognize and encode the personality traits of others properly. Such research may help us better understand autism and even develop novel treatments for it.

Spreng said, “This is the first study to show that we can decode what people are imagining.” Yet, similar studies have shown breakthrough results. In 2014, psychology professor Marvin Chun of Yale and his team were able to identify what images a subject was looking at using via fMRI and could reconstruct them on a computer screen.

A 2013 Japanese study picked up what sleepers were dreaming. Subjects had their brains scanned while sleeping, and were woken up periodically and asked what they were dreaming about. It was accurate in the sense that neuroscientists could tell the object in the person’s mind, say a car, but not the make and model.

Brain neurons fire in certain patterns. More and more today, neuroscientists are able to decipher these patterns.

For some, true mind reading is the ability to predict another person’s thoughts. A 2008 study got close. Here, researchers asked participants to press a button with either their right or left hand. A certain signature inside the brain allowed researchers to tell which hand would be used just a few seconds before the action occurred.

These kinds of studies have their limits. We can’t read whatever pops into a person’s head. What’s more, these are very controlled experiments, and most focus on visual stimuli. Vision is what we understand most and is the easiest to work with, according to UC Berkley’s Jack Gallant. The neuroscientist and his team conducted a dramatic study using an fMRI machine to capture video imagery from inside participants’ brains, while they watched clips from a popular Hollywood film.

Abstract thought however isn’t in sciences, grasp, yet. German cognitive neuroscientist John-Dylan Hayne told Wired that we can decipher certain mental states. But to be able to actually read a person’s mind we’d have to: “(a) take an arbitrary person, (b) decode arbitrary mental states and (c) do so without long calibration.” Today, that last one is time consuming and makes the process unwieldy.

Gallant believes a device that could recognize and record our internal monologue would be the most prized. “It would be like talking to Siri except without even talking,” he said. Another area to explore is scanning old memories. Since we don’t know every intricacy surrounding how long-term memories are encoded, it will take some time before these can be scanned for and decoded. Another aspect, different people’s brains code memories slightly differently. Scientists must learn to easily accommodate such variances.

This technology is still in its infancy, but it’s starting to gain traction. There are applications for criminal justice, defense, education, medicine, psychology, and so many other sectors. But there is also concern over abuse by governments and law enforcement agencies. Though it’s still quite a long road ahead, scientists, ethicists, and legislators will have to get a good grasp on this technology and put forth commonsense safeguards to ensure it doesn’t violate our most sacred of human spaces, the real estate between our ears.

To learn more about where we are with this technology, click here: 

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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