Scientists say they're getting closer to Matrix-style instant learning

What price effortless learning? In a paper published in the latest issue of Science, neuroscientists say they've developed a novel method of learning, that can cause long-lasting improvement in tasks that demand a high level of visual performance.

And while the so-called neurofeedback method could one day be used to teach you kung fu, or to aid spinal-injury patients on the road to rehabilitation, evidence also suggests the technology could be used to target people without their knowledge, opening doors to numerous important ethical questions.

According to a press release from the National Science Foundation:

New research published today in the journal Science suggests it may be possible to use brain technology to learn to play a piano, reduce mental stress or hit a curve ball with little or no conscious effort. It's the kind of thing seen in Hollywood's "Matrix" franchise.

Experiments conducted at Boston University (BU) and ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, recently demonstrated that through a person's visual cortex, researchers could use decoded functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to induce brain activity patterns to match a previously known target state and thereby improve performance on visual tasks.

Think of a person watching a computer screen and having his or her brain patterns modified to match those of a high-performing athlete or modified to recuperate from an accident or disease. Though preliminary, researchers say such possibilities may exist in the future.

But here's the bit that's really interesting (and also pretty creepy): the researchers found that this novel learning approach worked even when test subjects weren't aware of what they were learning:

"The most surprising thing in this study is that mere inductions of neural activation patterns...led to visual performance improvement...without presenting the feature or subjects' awareness of what was to be learned," said lead researcher Takeo Watanabe. He continues:

We found that subjects were not aware of what was to be learned while behavioral data obtained before and after the neurofeedback training showed that subjects' visual performance improved specifically for the target orientation, which was used in the neurofeedback training.

Is this research mind-blowing and exciting? Absolutely. I mean come on — automated learning? Yes. Sign me up. But according to research co-author Mitsuo Kawato, the neurofeedback mechanism could just as soon be used for purposes of hypnosis or covert mind control. And that... I'm not so keen on.

"We have to be careful," he explains, "so that this method is not used in an unethical way." [Science via NSF]
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