Spy on your own thoughts with Glass Brain

A new system for visualizing the goings-on inside the brain creates beautiful video images, letting us become neuro-voyeurs as we watch our thoughts fly around in real time.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

Thanks to an electrode-fitted cap and a combination of advanced imaging processes, you can now see the colorful goings-on inside your own brain. Neuroscape Lab

What do you get when you combine a neuroscientist with the guy who helped invent the virtual world Second Life? A way to virtually fly around the brain with a gamepad and watch thoughts in real time.

That's what attendees at Austin's South By Southwest Festival were recently treated to when Philip Rosedale, creator of Second Life, and Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California San Francisco, unveiled their Glass Brain project. Onlookers were able to be neuro-voyeurs as they peeked in on the mind workings of Rosedale's wife Yvette, and watched the storm of activity taking place there.

If you weren't lucky enough to be at SXSW, fear not. I've found this captivating video put out by the Neuroscape Lab (the project Gazzaley heads up at the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center), that shows what's going on in our gray matter in gorgeous color. According to the lab, "each color that lights up represents source power and connectivity in a different frequency band (theta, alpha, beta gamma) and the golden lines are white matter anatomical fiber tracts." In layman's terms, that means you're seeing the different levels of electrical energy in the brain (the frequencies), as well as the paths by which that energy moves around (the white matter anatomical fibers).

The Glass Brain project site says these astounding video tours of our noggins are produced through a combination of technologies that include "MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scanning to generate a high-resolution 3D model of an individual's brain, skull, and scalp tissue, DTI (Diffusion Tensor Imaging) for reconstructing white matter tracts, and BCILAB/SIFT to remove artifacts and statistically reconstruct the locations and dynamics of multiple sources of activity inside the brain from signals measured at electrodes on the scalp.

I'm not so sure how much the brain is going to like getting looked at all naked and lit up. I keep imagining the wearers of the electrode-fitted caps that make Glass Brain possible falling into some sort of endless feedback loop that has them staring, zombie-like, at screens showing what the brain does when you stare at a screen until someone cuts the power. But a much more likely outcome, according to LiveScience, is that the technology could be used to help people with brain injuries get their brains working correctly again.

In either case, the technology represents a true breakthrough in brain imaging. "We've never been able to step inside the structures [of the brain] and see it in this way," Gazzaley told LiveScience). "It's biofeedback on the next level."