For the first time, scientists can scan a person's brain and deduce whom a person is thinking of. With further research, such a technique could help diagnose and treat autism and other social interaction disorders.
Cognitive neuroscientist Nathan Spreng and his colleagues from Cornell University carried out the research, first giving 19 volunteers descriptions of four imaginary characters. Each character had a range of personalities: Half were agreeable and cooperated with others, while the other half were described as disagreeable, cold and aloof. Additionally, half were described as gregarious and extroverted, while others were depicted as timid introverts. Scientists also gave the characters popular names and matched them to the volunteer's gender.
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Researchers then asked participants to predict how each character might behave in a variety of social scenarios, such as someone spilling a drink at a bar or a homeless veteran asking for change. While doing so, scientists scanned each subject's brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Scientists found that each character's personality was linked to distinct patterns of brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of that brain that helps us deduce traits in others. Therefore, the researchers were able to determine whom the volunteers were thinking about.
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"The scope of this is incredible when you think of all the people you meet over the course of your life and are able to remember. Each one probably has its own unique representation in the brain," Spreng said, according to Txchnologist. "This representation can be modified as we share experiences and learn more about each other, and plays into how we imagine future events with others unfolding."
Spreng and his colleagues published their findings earlier this month in the journal Cerebral Cortex.