A brain region activated when people are asked to perform mathematical calculations in an experimental setting is similarly activated when they use numbers -- or even imprecise quantitative terms, such as "more than" -- in everyday conversation, according to a study by Stanford University School of Medicine scientists.
Using a novel method, the researchers collected the first solid evidence that the pattern of brain activity seen in someone performing a mathematical exercise under experimentally controlled conditions is very similar to that observed when the person engages in quantitative thought in the course of daily life.
"We're now able to eavesdrop on the brain in real life," said Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences and director of Stanford's Human Intracranial Cognitive Electrophysiology Program. Parvizi is the senior author of the study, published Oct. 15, 2013 in Nature Communications. The study's lead authors are postdoctoral scholar Mohammad Dastjerdi, MD, PhD, and graduate student Muge Ozker.
The finding could lead to "mind-reading" applications that, for example, would allow a patient who is rendered mute by a stroke to communicate via passive thinking. Conceivably, it could also lead to more dystopian outcomes: chip implants that spy on or even control people's thoughts.
"This is exciting, and a little scary," said Henry Greely, JD, the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law and steering committee chair of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, who played no role in the study but is familiar with its contents and described himself as "very impressed" by the findings. "It demonstrates, first, that we can see when someone's dealing with numbers and, second, that we may conceivably someday be able to manipulate the brain to affect how someone deals with numbers."
The researchers monitored electrical activity in a region of the brain called the intraparietal sulcus, known to be important in attention and eye and hand motion. Previous studies have hinted that some nerve-cell clusters in this area are also involved in numerosity, the mathematical equivalent of literacy.
However, the techniques that previous studies have used, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, are limited in their ability to study brain activity in real-life settings and to pinpoint the precise timing of nerve cells' firing patterns. These studies have focused on testing just one specific function in one specific brain region, and have tried to eliminate or otherwise account for every possible confounding factor. In addition, the experimental subjects would have to lie more or less motionless inside a dark, tubular chamber whose silence would be punctuated by constant, loud, mechanical, banging noises while images flashed on a computer screen.