“The ability to read people’s minds – a superpower – is one we’re learning about, but I don’t think we’ve explored how far in advance we might be able to influence a subject’s thoughts.”
This is the first study to investigate the question and it’s being carried out by Stanford University scientists on humans under controlled conditions, rather than a laboratory for experiments on animals.
Dr James Foulkes, of Stanford University’s university school of engineering, said he wanted to find out if there were ways of predicting someone’s mental state.
“We have an ability to know people and their mental state,” he explained. “What we want to find out is whether, if we knew in advance the thoughts that they are thinking about, we might be able to influence them.”
He thinks it may be possible.
“As part of brain scanning, we need to be able to look at the brain in action. If you know people’s thoughts, you might be able to modify a thought pattern and influence that as an individual is thinking. So, I think we’re not yet far from having some capability to predict someone’s thoughts.”
It would be possible to take the information gathered about a person, such as what they say and what they are thinking, and work out what they might be thinking about.
He points out something of a chicken-and-egg problem as to whether we are aware of these thoughts and if they are influencing us, or whether they aren’t.
Dr Foulkes said studies were now needed to try and solve the riddle.
One possibility, he admits, would be to get people to describe to a researcher their thoughts as they are experiencing them. So another question remains. Could thoughts be consciously influenced? Could we ever be deliberately influenced?
“That’s a question we should be looking for answers to,” he said.
If we are, our thoughts will be influencing our future plans – and our feelings about other people’s.
We can’t know, of course, for sure if we’re capable of controlling an external mind when we are conscious of it, but it’s nice to think that if that were the case, we’d have to be extremely clever to escape attention.
So when you’re feeling down, what should you do?
Dr Foulkes is a keen nature photographer, and says if you’re feeling down to earth, go for some walks or join a hike.
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