Deck of cards being dealt as part of a magic trick

Reading the mind

Scientists can now predict what a person is seeing just by looking at their brain, even in the absence of conscious awareness

Among the components of a scene recognised by visual areas of the brain are sloping grids of lines. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveals that different neurons respond to grids of different orientation.

By backward masking, researchers can eliminate conscious awareness of the orientation of a grid that a subject has been exposed to. Even so, distinctive patterns can be seen in a brain scan, so a researcher can predict which image the subject saw.

The brain has captured, subconsciously, information about a scene. Although the subject has no recollection of it, the image has been imprinted in the brain and can be ‘read’ by a researcher. In effect, scientists have managed to take a snapshot of someone’s subconscious – a simple form of mind reading.

Lead image:

Seth M/Flickr CC BY NC ND

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Cell biology, Neuroscience, Psychology, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development