A look inside your memory

Is mind reading really possible? It is possible to look inside someone’s brain. RUG researcher Michael Wolff is going even further. Not only can he see what you are thinking of, he can also see what you are not thinking of.
By Freek Schueler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Who wouldn’t give their left foot for the ability to read minds? You could have a peek inside your boss’s head to see if he is happy with your performance. Or you could find out if your crush returns your feelings. Illusionists such as Victor Mids and his programme Mindfuck, make a sport out of convincing the audience they are truly capable of reading minds.

They do not actually have superpowers, of course, but they cleverly use video editing and magic tricks to make people think they do. Nevertheless, taking a look inside someone’s brain is not entirely impossible. Because while Mids uses parlour tricks, RUG research Michael Wolff (30) can actually read minds.

A look inside the brain

Wolff works as a researcher at the Experimental Psychology department at the University of Groningen. Together with the University of Oxford, he developed a new method to take a look inside the brain. Or, to be more precise, inside the memory. To be even more precise, the working memory.

The working memory, also known as the short-term memory, serves as temporary storage to help you remember relevant information. Without this working memory, we would be unable to remember phone numbers, for example. The electrical signals the brain sends out can be measured.

Whenever you are called upon to remember something, you turn on specific brain cells. These stay on until the phone number can be forgotten again, for instance because you wrote it down. However, whenever you have to remember two things at once, such as both the phone number and the person it belongs to, merely repeating the phone number no longer suffices.

Quick as lightning, your brain creates new connections between brain cells and alters existing ones, ensuring the relevant name is also stored. Wolff calls the information that is stored this way ‘silent memories’. The memory may be inside your head, but in contrast to the phone number, it cannot be measured.


That is, until Wolff and his colleagues came up with a nifty trick: they ‘ping’ the brain. Compare it to a ship’s sonar. A ship sends a sound (the ping) in the direction of the seabed. This sound is always exactly the same. On the basis of the sound reflection, the ship gains an idea of what the seabed looks like, even though it cannot see through the murky waters.

Wolff did the same with his test subjects. He sent a flash of light (the ping) to the brain through the eyes. The ‘echo’ the brain returns changes as the connections in the brain change, which is what happens during the storage of a silent memory. Based on that echo, Wolff can see what is stored in his test subjects’ working memories.

All of this sounds nice, but what is the point? Apart from the fact that it sounds like cool science fiction, knowing what is stored in someone’s working memory does not seem particularly useful. After all, the brain’s owners themselves also know that.

Lie detector

But Wolff thinks the science can truly be put to good use. People suspected of committing a crime might become unable to fool a lie detector by consciously thinking of something else. ‘This new technique would be able to expose the suppressed, yet not forgotten memory.’

According to Wolff, this way of mind reading is a new field of study within neuroscience. The principle of ‘silent memories’ offers new insights into the way the brain works, as well as brain-related illnesses.

For one, it could be really helpful to the elderly suffering from memory loss, because they have more trouble rapidly changing the connections between brain cells, which means they cannot store ‘silent memories’ as easily. Wolff is hopeful that if we can get to the core of the problem, we might be able to develop medication for it in the future.

Photo homepage: Men in Black, Colombia Pictures

27 June 2017