New “Brain Control” Study Published: Implications for Behavior Analysis

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

CNN recently reported that researchers at the University of Washington have successfully developed technology that allows your behavior to be influenced by the brain activity of another person.  

By wearing a specially designed cap connected to an EEG machine, Rajesh Rao, a computer science and engineering professor at the university, was able to send his brain signals through the Internet across campus to the brain of his colleague Andrea Stocco.  Stocco wore a cap that received the information from Rao’s brain and stimulated his left motor cortex.  All Rao had to do was imagine he was moving his finger to hit the “fire” button on a video game and Stocco moved his index finger to the appropriate key.  Stocco likened the feeling to a “nervous tic.”

Rao stressed that the technology cannot control another person’s thoughts and cannot control movements against their will.  As one future application, Stocco notes that such a technology could potentially help in emergency situations “if a flight attendant or passenger suddenly had to land an airplane, this technology could allow someone on the ground to guide the person through the process.”

From a behavior analytic perspective, what is one to make of the findings?  Major thinkers such as B.F. Skinner and J.R. Kantor devoted much philosophical discussion to the role physiological events play at the behavioral level.  Moreover, a quick search of The Behavior Analyst journal will yield many empirical and theoretical articles on the subject.   

In the opinion of this writer, studies like Rao’s show the importance of understanding one’s subject-matter as a science.  J. R. Kantor, in particular, has devoted many books on precisely specifying and delineating the psychological subject-matter from those of other disciplines.  From his perspective, psychological events (the subject matter of behavior analysis) consist of functional relations between the responding of a whole organism and the stimulating of the surrounding environment.  Most importantly, psychological events are historical — a function of the individual’s history in the world.  Physiological or biological events (functional relations among particular organs or cells and their surroundings), by contrast, can participate as stimulation in psychological events but are not themselves the primary subject matter. 

The important point here is that, in this writers opinion, it is slightly misleading to say “behavior” is the subject matter of behavior analysis.  Rather, it would be more accurate to say “psychological behavior” or even the “psychological characteristics of behavior” is the subject-matter of behavior analysis.  Inherent in this perspective is the interdisciplinary nature of behavior — behavior analysts focus on one aspect of behavior, but scientists in other fields focus on others.  

Thus, it is not yet clear what proportion of the behavior observed in this “brain control” experiment is properly termed “psychological” vs “physiological.”  In all likelihood it is some combination of the two, meaning the area of study is ripe for interdisciplinary collaboration between behavior analysts and neuroscientists.

Let us know what you think about brain control research and its implications in the comments below, and remember to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles, and free monthly issues, directly to your inbox!

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  1. The only time I’ve ever heard of any type of mind control (although you expressively said that this wasn’t the case) was in science fiction novels. Though the idea that this could be used for when someone needs to help safely land a plane, this type of ability is still something we’ll want to keep an eye on because not everyone has good intentions.

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