Beaming information onto the brain: Learning like Kung Fu Keanu in The Matrix

Researchers found a way to imprint information on the brain via its visual processors

Someday, will all learning be as quick and convenient as the Kung Fu lessons downloaded into Keanu Reeves' brain in The Matrix?

Researchers from Boston University and Japan's ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories have figured out how to use data from functional MRIs to create a method of neurofeedback that can project a pre-recorded pattern into some sections of the brain.

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The resulting pattern in the brain is very similar to the same material imprinted using more conventional learning techniques, according to a paper published in the journal Science.

The authors figured out a way to effectively imprint information onto the visual cortex– information that was absorbed well enough to allow human test subjects to perform vision-oriented tasks the imprinted pattern described with more efficiency than they could manage beforehand.

Their conclusion is that it may be possible to use the approach to "teach" humans some things the same way we "teach" computers – by downloading the lesson into available storage, relying on the self-deterministic ability of the brain itself to adapt the imprinted material into a form it can use in much the same way it would if it had learned the material the old-fashioned way.

So, is it possible?

Yes.

Is it realistically possible?

No.

How hard would it be to port an app to your brain?

Consider how difficult it is to transfer not just raw data, but instructions and data from one computer to another and get the new one to perform correctly.

Data is relatively easy, which implies you might be able to transfer memories, or raw information like the names and dates in office of all the American presidents into a human brain fairly easily.

But programmatic commands? Go here. Do this. Kick Agent Smith(s). Change facial expression (it's Keanu, remember?).

No. Viruses, bad programming, misconfigured data-projection machines and all the other things that could possibly go wrong with silicon-based data and instructions can go far wronger with meat-based data and instructions.

And that's just assuming there's no problem with the receiving platform itself. Getting one computer to accurately run a set of instructions designed to run on one with different components, a different version of the operating system, different drivers, diagnostics and programmatic interfaces is almost impossible.

Usually it requires throwing out the new machine and replacing it with one almost identical to the old one. Or recoding every bit of instruction by hand so it will run on the new machine.

Or building an emulation layer so the program will think it's running on the old machine and the new machine will think the program is written for it.

Emulation works, but slows everything down and is almost always inaccurate enough to create exciting new bugs in the new system that may not be found for years.

Human brains are a lot less standardized than computer hardware. The OSes are all wildly dissimilar; the wetware comes in such a variety of configurations most can't be considered to be the same "platform" from a programming perspective.

How hard would your brain resist the implant of knowledge?

Even assuming instructions simplified enough that they won't be warped in transmission (or warp the mind trying to perceive them), there's a good chance any instructions would be rejected like a bad liver or the wrong side of a political hot-button.

Human brains obviously have an as-yet-unidentified physical characteristic that allows them to reject even obvious and well-proven ideas that conflict with more dearly held beliefs. How else can you explain all those fools who disagree with you on abortion, defense, taxes, immigration, drugs, education and whether Starbucks and Hipsters should be allowed to live peacefully in neighborhoods that are otherwise not terribly annoying.

Trying to squeeze anything into a human head is tremendously difficult, dangerous to both squeezee and squeezer and frustrating due to its short half life. Ask any teacher two days after the end of a semester, or even yourself half an hour after the end of a final exam.

Human knowledge is fleeting and ephemeral; human error lasts forever.

The only things an adult human brain can retain for the long term are those that are either false, trivial or diabolical. (How long has it been since you've heard "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree? Still remember the tune? Can't get it out of your head? Sorry.)

Actually the technique probably will lead to some form of effective lightweight training, though not about anything involving belief or even, most likely, deep decision-making.

Remembering where you left your keys or where the light switch is in a room is easy compared to understanding calculus or, for example, Kung Fu.

Even if the ability to imprint functional information ever works, it's too much to expect it would ever work well enough to overcome the two characteristics of the human brain that have been the ultimate downfall of educators, dictators and saints throughout human history: determined ignorance among those who choose not to learn, and stubborn bloody mindednessamong those who do.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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