German neuroscientist Niels Birbaumer is teaching 11 paralyzed patients who can’t even blink their eyes how to use their brain waves to control a computer. They’ve learned to change the electrical signals coming from their brains by visualizing an arrow about to be shot from a bow or a runner crouched at the starting line. The electrical brain waves generated by these types of thoughts can used to control a cursor that selects letters to spell words, meaning these formerly mute people can now communicate.
Many of his patients have degenerative diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS, the disease the English physicist Stephen Hawking has). As the disease progresses, they lose the ability to move, talk, swallow or breathe. But their minds stay as sharp as ever. Michael Pellatt, an Australian ALS patient, says, “If you can’t communicate, it would be like living in a clear casket. It would make a huge difference.”
Their messages about being “locked in” aren’t as awful as Birbaumer imagined, before he taught them to communicate. “They describe sleep-like fantasies and thinking going on most of the time, not the desperation you would expect of someone in such a state,” he says. “There seems to be some changes in time perception. Time doesn’t seem to move as fast for them.”
Writing this way takes time?it can take 10 minutes to complete a short sentence. Birbaumer gets the best results with paralyzed patients who start learning how to use his Thought Translation Device before they lose their other means of communication, so they can move a finger or their blink eyes to indicate “yes” or “no.”
What he teaches is not like mediating?in fact, people who’ve studied meditation have more trouble learning his techniques. Healthy volunteers can learn to control their brain waves in three to four sessions, while it takes paralyzed patients take 30 to 40 sessions. However, some people, both healthy and paralyzed, simply can’t seem to learn how to do it. Birbaumer also teaches epileptics to avoid seizures by controlling their brain waves.
There are many different kinds of brain waves. Birbaumer teaches patients to control the ones called slow cortical potentials. Physicist Nigel Livingston uses alpha waves, which are generated by thinking about relaxing, pleasant things, such as clouds floating in the sky, walking on the sand in bare feet or eating ice cream.
Livingston started studying mind control because he has a disabled daughter. He worries about the moral position he’d be in if someone trapped in their body communicated that they wanted to die. But Birbaumer has found that paralyzed patients aren’t usually severely depressed and do find their lives worth living.
The next step would be to implant mind-control implants directly into a patient’s brain. Experiments with monkeys have shown that implanted electrodes can control brain waves much more efficiently, but so far, there have been no human volunteers. Birbaumer says, “They find this idea too risky.”
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