Pop your head into an fMRI machine, think of a recent memory, and it's likely that a neuroscientist can guess what's on your mind. If we track memories as they form, does that mean a new era in mind control?
Eleanor Maguire of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging worked on the study, in which 10 subjects were shown three film clips multiple times, then asked to remember them while inside the fMRI scanner. It turned out to be relatively easy to trace the neurological pathway between viewing something and putting the memory into short-term storage in the hippocampus. Above you can see a "heat map" of which parts of the hippocampus are active as memories get stored. Using specialized software, the researchers could detect and decode each memory.
So is this the first step towards mind control? Absolutely not, and here's why.
Over at Neurophilosophy, Mo Costandi writes:
Experiments like this are now routinely referred to as 'mind reading' in the mass media, but are nothing of the sort. This particular study, and others like it, involve using specially designed computer algorithms to distinguish between a very limited number of known activity patterns. Our memories are of course infinitely more diverse than those of the short film clips used here. They enable us to perform mental time travel, to recollect not only what we had for breakfast yesterday but also childhood events that took place decades ago. True 'free recall' would involve asking participants to recollect any real life event, and it is unlikely that brain scanning techniques could ever be used to determine what memory was being recollected in such a situation, even with the inevitable technological advances.
So we won't be getting one of those memory-erasing beams from Men In Black any time soon. Still, the experiments represent a major step toward understanding how memory works - and that could help us craft memory enhancers (or erasers) at some point in the near future.