Researchers have discovered that our mental picture of another person produces unique patterns of brain activation that can be detected using advanced imaging techniques. In plain English, this means it’s possible to read minds.

Says Cornell University neuroscientist Nathan Spreng, who led the study with colleague Demis Hassabis of University College London: “When we looked at our data, we were shocked that we could successfully decode who our participants were thinking about, based on their brain activity.” He adds: “Our findings shed light on how the brain formulates models of people’s personality in order to anticipate their behaviour – a faculty critical for success in the social world.”

For their study, published online in Cerebral Cortex, the researchers asked 19 young adults to learn about the personalities of four people who differed on key personality traits. Participants were given different scenarios (for example, sitting on a bus when an elderly person gets on, and there are no seats) and asked to imagine how a specified person would respond. During the task, their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

The researchers found that different patterns of brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) were associated with each of the four different personalities. In other words, which person was being imagined could be accurately identified based solely on the brain activation pattern. The results suggest that the brain codes the personality traits of others in distinct brain regions, and that this information is integrated in the mPFC to produce an overall personality model used to plan social interactions.

Says Spreng: “Prior research has implicated the anterior mPFC in social cognition disorders such as autism, and our results suggest people with such disorders may have an inability to build accurate personality models. If further research bears this out, we may ultimately be able to identify specific brain activation biomarkers not only for diagnosing such diseases, but for monitoring the effects of interventions.”

  • The study was co-authored by Demis Hassabis, University College London; Andrie Rusu, Vrije Univesiteit; Clifford Robbins, Harvard University; Raymond Mar, York University; and Daniel L Schacter, Harvard University. (Source: Karene Booker, Cornell University)