Are 3 brains connected via BrainNet better than one?

Experiments show brain-to-brain collaboration.

(Irina Shi/Shutterstock/Big Think)
  • Scientists connect three people's brains together to play Tetris.
  • BrainNet may represent first baby steps in brain "social networking".
  • Imagine having two other people in on your most private deliberations.

The title of the paper just submitted for peer review says it all: 'BrainNet: A Multi-Person Brain-to-Brain Interface for Direct Collaboration Between Brains'. Developed by scientists from the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon, the system passes simple signals from one person's brain to another, allowing for collaborative decisions: The first meeting of minds involved manipulating pieces in a game of Tetris. The hope is that BrainNet can, over time, be scaled up for informationally richer communication.

The BrainNet interface

The BrainNet three-person brain-to-brain interface (BBI) system combines an electroencephalography (EEG) sensor that records a signal from a Sender's brain, decodes it, and delivers it to another person's occipital cortex through a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) cap. It's perceived by the Receiver as a phosphene, or a brain-produced flash. Two Senders can be connected to the same Receiver.

YES and NO choices are represented by the circles at the edge of each screen. "BCI" stands for "Brain to Computer Interface" while "CBI" is the abbreviation for "Computer to Brain Interface."

Credit: Jiang, et al

A game of Tetris for the ages

Tetris trios

The researchers recruited 15 subjects—18–35 yrs, eight female—and divided them into five trios, each of which contained two Senders and one Receiver.

The task

The experiments consisted of a single task performed multiple times: The successful completion of a single round of Tetris. As in any Tetris game, the goal was to rotate, if necessary, a slowly falling piece so that it successfully completed a row at the bottom of the screen. Both Senders offered advice—not always in agreement—to the Receiver.

During each task the Senders saw both the dropping piece and the bottom row—the Receivers saw only the dropping piece.

(Jiang, et al)

Thinking about a yes or no choice

As a piece moved downward, each Sender was presented a yes/no choice regarding whether or not the piece needed to be rotated or not. He or she was instructed to stare at either the on-screen YES or NO lights to move a cursor toward the light representing the desired choice.

The lights flashed at different frequencies —17 kHz per second for YES and 15 kHz for NO — allowing the EEG to use the different rates as a way of identifying the Sender's decision.

(Jiang, et al)

BrainNet steps in

The EEGs transmitted each YES or NO via TCP/IP to a decoder for conversion to a single TMS pulse that was then delivered to the Recipient's TMS cap. If the pulse was strong enough, a phosphene would appear to the Recipient signifying a "yes, rotate the piece" signal. If not, no phosphene would be seen, meaning, "no, don't do anything."

Unreliable help

It was up to the recipient to make a decision as to who was providing the best instructions. The researchers introduced this element as a way of assessing the extent to which recipients could filter out "noise," which is to say, worthless information.

The paper says, "To investigate whether the Receiver can learn the reliability of each Sender and choose the more reliable Sender for making decisions, we designed the system to deliberately make one of the Senders less accurate than the other. Specifically, for each session, one Sender was randomly chosen as the 'bad' Sender and in ten out of sixteen trials in that session, this Sender's decision when delivered to the Receiver was always incorrect, both in the first and second round of the trial."

Over the course of the tests, the researchers found that Recipients became quite good at tuning out their bad Senders.

(Jiang, et al)

Is this what you really want?

Once the Recipient had rotated the piece or not, the piece was displayed for the Senders hanging halfway down the screen in its current orientation. At this point, the Senders could once again send instructions to the Recipient who could then rotate it, if necessary, for the piece's final correct placement.

Encouraging results

The paper found in the end that, "Five groups, each with three human subjects, successfully used BrainNet to perform the Tetris task, with an average accuracy of 81.25%." That's pretty impressive and way above the random odds of success, as the report's figure illustrates.

(Jiang, et al)

Of course, BrainNet is just a beginning at best, dealing with extremely simple binary choices from Senders, and a fairly simple binary choice for the Recipient to make. This nothing like sharing a complex thought. The team has considered adding other, levels of exchange, perhaps via fMRI, to give greater depth to the type of information that can be sent and received. Their hope, though, is that BrainNet is an early step in the "possibility of future brain-to-brain interfaces that enable cooperative problem solving by humans using a 'social network' of connected brains."

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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