Measuring Thoughts

Neuroscientists Decode Brain Speech Signals into Written Text.” If you suspect that the National Enquirer wrote this recent newspaper headline, you would be wrong. It was published by the respected British newspaper, The Guardian.

A scan of a brain

It caught my eye for obvious reasons. I have not checked out the science, but the report is about how a California neuroscientist has “built computer models that learned to match particular patterns of brain activity to the questions the patients heard and the answers they spoke. Once trained, the software could identify almost instantly, and from brain signals alone, what question a patient heard and what response they gave, with an accuracy of 76% and 61% respectively.” You can read more of the details in the article. My interest was in the technology’s implications for behavior analysis if it can be expanded to meet the more general claim in the headline.

Private events have been a behavioral sticking point from the very beginnings of behaviorism. There are always the “yes, but” reaction to whatever wonderful behavioral control systems behavior analysts come up with. Behavior analysts have debated not only the nature of private events but also their role in the control of behavior. Enter the above machinery. Would it not be amazing to actually, literally, read a person’s private thoughts before and after some action? Ethical considerations aside for the moment, far from negating a behavior-analytic analysis of private events, it might well strengthen it. Imagine me sitting at my desk writing this blog, then a machine showing my thoughts turn to “cold beer,” at which point I head to the ‘fridge and get one (it is 830 in the morning as I write this, so it is all just hypothetical, like the extrapolation of the machine’s capabilities).

A Child with electrodes on their head for a brain scanShowing a printout of one’s thoughts would not render the environment irrelevant, as some cognitive psychologists seem to claim. Rather, we now have a measurable functional relation between a (formerly) private event (thinking “beer”) and behavior (getting “beer”). Many have contended all along that private stimuli function just like exteroceptive ones, and here would be concrete evidence of that. Unanswered in all of this is what triggered the recorded thought in the first place. It could be some exteroceptive event, or it could be another thought, brought on by either another thought or another exteroceptive event, resulting in an endless chain. The point is that even when private events become measurable, they are ultimately connectable to the exteroceptive environment, sooner or later and in one way or another. Behavior analysis and the understanding of the role of private events in behavior have everything to gain if the Californian’s preliminary findings hold up under further scientific scrutiny.

Learn more with A Behavioral Approach to Consciousness by Dr. Hank Schlinger. 

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