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Telepathy or a Painstaking Conversation in Morse Code? Pierre Mégevand goes beyond the media hype.

With this blog post, we welcome Pierre Mégevand as a PLOS Neuro Community Editor. He joins Emilie Reas in this role, and together they serve as the primary point of contact for neuroscience researchers who wish to make suggestions, express a concern, contribute a guest post or offer any other content to this community site for and by neuroscience researchers. Contact Pierre and Emilie at  As always we encourage your comments here or on our Twitter feed @PLOSNeuro.

Read about Pierre’s background as a physician and neuroscientist as the bottom of his post.

— Victoria Costello, Senior Social Media & Community Editor at PLOS

“Hello, hive!” Brain scientists report first direct brain-to-brain communication in humans

By Pierre Mégevand

telepathyScientists have, for the first time, assisted two human beings in communicating through mental processes across two continents. They reported the results of their experiment in PLOS ONE on August 19, 2014.

But if this exciting first step has your mind racing with ideas of telepathy, freely reading the streams of thoughts of your fellow human beings, hold on. For now, the current brain-to-brain experiment amounts more to a painstaking conversation in Morse code. It also raises crucial ethical issues with respect to the privacy of our mental processes and our sense of agency.

In the experiment, the researchers, based in Spain and France, used a brain-computer interface to allow a human ‘emitter’ to encode a message, and a computer-brain interface so that ‘receivers’ could decode it. The emitter, located in India, generated a message (a binary form of the word ‘hello’) by thinking of either of two things: moving their feet or their hands. The researchers used EEG to differentiate the electrical activity generated by the brain in these two situations, allowing them to translate the emitter’s thoughts into a binary code (0 when the emitter thought of moving the feet, 1 for the hands) that was sent to France over the internet. There, the receivers sat underneath a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) system that transmitted the binary code to them through noninvasive brain stimulation.


TMS delivers brief but intense magnetic fields to the brain through the skull, transiently modifying its activity. When TMS is applied to the motor cortex, for instance, muscles in the arm twitch; when applied to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, TMS causes the subject to perceive a flash of light called phosphene. The research team here chose the latter: the binary code sent from India was thus translated into TMS pulses that either induced phosphenes or not in the receivers. The receivers then simply announced whether or not they had perceived a phosphene, deciphering the binary word one bit at a time.

brain to brain

This experiment represents the first time that people exchanged information by consciously controlling and monitoring their own mental processes, without any active motion or actual sensory perception.

Limitations on the technology that is currently available to stimulate the brain noninvasively made the process slow and not entirely error-proof: it took about 30 seconds for a single bit of information to be transmitted, and the error rate was 5 to 10%. Additionally, the message was written in a binary code not directly understandable by humans. Nevertheless, this experiment is an exciting first step towards the possibility of someday accessing the mental processes of another human being—and also, perhaps, of controlling them.

The Inevitable Ethical Questions

As such, this experiment raises perhaps more than its fair share of critical ethical questions. As mentioned above, noninvasive stimulation of the motor cortex triggers involuntary movements.

Dr. Giulio Ruffini, the corresponding author, explains that his team chose not to stimulate the motor cortex because the receivers would then have been able to detect the communication via their peripheral nervous system (they would have sensed their own involuntary motion by proprioception), and the information exchange would therefore not have been a purely ‘brain-to-brain’ one.

Nevertheless, the current research introduces the possibility that one human’s thoughts could control another human’s actions remotely, as if it were a puppet or a robot. Of course, current brain stimulation technologies are far too crude yet, but it is arguably only a question of time and of refining our understanding of motor planning and execution before we can consider such an experiment.

More generally, the idea of remotely accessing and influencing another person’s private thoughts is as chilling as it is exciting, and the current research affords a peek into this Pandora’s box.

As Dr. Ruffini puts it, “technology empowers us for good and ill.”  Neuroscientists will have to maintain the highest ethical standards in pursuing this line of research. They will also need the help of experts in disciplines such as computer security to ensure that the information exchanged remains protected from undesirable attention or interference.

But the most profound impact of the current study might lie elsewhere.

Dr. Ruffini reveals that “the original project behind this research was called HIVE”, in reference to “super-organisms in which individuals act as a collective.”

Neuroscience research, more than any other, has the potential to fundamentally alter the organization of our social structures.

 The views expressed in this blog strictly belong to the author and are not necessarily shared by PLOS.

pierre_from_Davids_picturePierre Mégevand, MD, PhD is a physician and neuroscientist. Originally from Switzerland, Pierre moved to New York two years ago to work at the Cognitive Neurophysiology Laboratory of Albert Einstein College of Medicine  and, currently, as a post doctoral research fellow at the Laboratory for Multimodal Human Brain Mapping of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. He has a major interest in understanding the function of the brain in health and disease.

On Twitter @pierre_vanmedge

Read his personal blog here.

  1. […] My first post, which I’ll re-post here 24 hours after it first appears at PLOSNeuro, talks about the recent report in PLOS ONE of direct brain-to-brain communication between human subjects. I’m especially happy about the title of the post, “Hello, hive!” Let me (and the other members of the neuroscience community) know what you think by your comments! […]

  2. No matter how interesting this study is, it is severely overhyped. I consider it to be a nice demo piece, more akin to a Rube Goldberg machine than actual neuroscience. I am afraid this is not really a ‘first step’ in direct brain-to-brain communication, because there isn’t a single fundamental issue in brain-to-brain interfacing that is addressed or resolved. The studies by the group of Miguel Nicolelis with rat brain-to-brain communication are far more exciting and informative in this respect. See for a more extensive discussion.

  3. Thank you for your comment. I think that, in cases such as this where a scientific report generates a massive response in the general media, one needs to be careful not to conflate the two. Here, accordingly, we have to distinguish whether the authors brought anything new to the scientific discussion regarding brain-to-brain communication, and whether we are indeed witnessing the birth of telepathy as a viable mode of communication between humans.

    Regarding the first point: as far as I’m aware, the authors did establish a scientific “first” in the context of non-invasive human brain-to-brain communication when they thought of using TMS to elicit phosphenes in the receiver, thus bypassing the peripheral nervous system and the sense organs entirely. In other words, it’s not the first time that phosphenes were generated by TMS, but it’s the first time that a non-invasive human computer-to-brain interface has used phosphenes as a substrate for information transmission.

    As for the emitter side of the experiment, the authors themselves readily acknowledge that “brain-computer interfaces embody a well-established, innovative field of study with many potential applications” (I’m quoting from their article in PLOS ONE). Their study does not attempt to bring anything new here, but rather functions as another example of what contemporary BCIs can do.

    The rat-to-rat brain communication experiments of Dr. Nicolelis and his team are extremely exciting and are likely to strongly influence further research using invasive multi-electrode arrays in humans. Here, however, the authors explicitly set out to test the concept of non-invasive human brain-to-brain communication. There is no denying that using TMS to stimulate the receiver’s brain is slow, clumsy, and prone to errors: the authors also acknowledge this in their article. In the future, we will be able to look upon their methods as an antique Rube Goldberg machine (“a contraption that is deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task in a very complicated fashion, usually including a chain reaction”, from Wikipedia). In the meantime, this is the best that we have.

  4. […] A paper published recently in the journal F1000 Research rose more than a few eyebrows by claiming to support the existence of telepathy. Adding to my own confusion, PLOS ONE also recently published an article about brain-to-brain communication that was widely misreported as substantiating ‘telepathy’ even though it was nothing of the sort – participants in that study were linked by a brain-computer interface and transcranial magnetic stimulation. I was thus pretty surprised when I realized the F1000 article was about actual telepathy rather than the more benign brain-powered Morse code (read the PLOS Neuroscience Community’s coverage of that study here). […]

  5. […] to establishing direct communication between brains involves an extremely convoluted apparatus and would take hours to transmit the amount of information you typically exchange in a 2-minute conversa…. Nevertheless, research on these brain-to-brain interfaces, as they are called, is valuable because […]

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