Scientists can actually identify what we are thinking and now even feeling, Lesley Stahl reports on this Sunday’s 60 Minutes. Her story on the use of functional MRIs and computer analysis to interpret human thoughts will be broadcast on Sunday, November 24, at 7 p.m., ET/PT on CBS.
Ten years ago, Stahl first reported on a team of scientists from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University who discovered a way to, in effect, read minds — to identify the thoughts of people inside an MRI scanner when they thought about simple objects like tools and dwellings. In the decade since, the team has dramatically expanded the types of thoughts it can identify in the brain to emotions, highly abstract concepts, foreign languages, and even suicidal thinking. Neuroscientist Marcel Just tells Stahl that being able to peer inside our brains to identify our thoughts is a whole new frontier for science: “It’s like being an astronomer when the first telescope is discovered, or being a biologist when the first microscope is developed.”
One of the most surprising discoveries, says Dr. Just, has been the fact that activity patterns in the brain when people think about even abstract ideas like spirituality, forgiveness and gossip, are common across people. They’re even the same when people think in different languages. To study emotions, Just asked acting students to conjure up different feelings while having their brains scanned. Again, results showed common patterns. “Each emotion had its own characteristic values and you could tell which one was which,” he tells Stahl. “Amazingly, it was common across people.”