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Have scientists invented rat telepathy?

By July 6, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

I was shocked when I read media reports about an experiment in which a lab rat with brain implants was able to mentally send instructions to a second rat with brain implants.  It creates dizzying vistas of a coming world.

Here’s Slate’s description of the experiment:

Researchers implanted one set of electrodes in the brain of the rat in Brazil, and another set of electrodes in the brain of a second rat at Duke University. Via an Internet connection, they set it up so that a signal from the brain of the rat in Brazil would be sent, in simplified form, directly to the brain of the rat in North Carolina. The rat in North Carolina also faced two levers, but had no information to go on as to which one to press—except for the signal coming from the first rat’s brain.

And here’s how the reporter described the implications, in taking with the experimenter, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis of Duke

Nicolelis believes this opens the possibility of building an “organic computer” that links the brains of multiple animals into a single central nervous system, which he calls a “brain-net.” Are you a little creeped out yet? In a statement, Nicolelis adds:

We cannot even predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a brain-net. In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves.

It’s fantastic to think about, and I hope a sci-fi novel is already being written.  But after reading the report itself, I felt like I’d witnessed an expert game of 3-card monty, rather than a scientific breakthrough.

First:  the two rats (an “encoder” rat that was sending the signal and a “decoder” rat that was receiving it) weren’t sending and receiving actual brain impulses (however you choose to define them) to one another.  The lab rat in Brazil (the “encoder”) had its brain activity recorded while it was making its choice.  Those impulses were then compared against templates of the rat’s neural activity when making that specific choice, which had been averaged out during trial runs.  That appropriate template was in turn converted into an inter-cranial micro-stimulation pattern which was applied to the decoder rat.  (An oversimplified explanation:  if the encoder rat chose the left door, the decoder rat got two zaps to the brain;  if the encoder rat chose the right door, the decoder rat got three zaps.) So the two brains weren’t actually connected in a real sense:  what was being sent was a simplified code based on what was observed in the encoder rat’s brain over a period of trials.

But more crucial is what was happening with the decoder rat.  I’m going to quote directly from the paper regarding the decoder rat’s training regimen:

(D)ecoder rats were trained to become proficient while receiving ICMS as a stimulus. A train of ICMS pulses instructed the animal to select one of the levers/nose pokes, whereas a single ICMS pulse instructed a response to the other option. Decoder rats reached a 78.77% ± 2.1 correct trials performance level.

So it’s not that the decoder rats had no idea what was going on, got a zap to the brain, and then decided to go through the appropriate door – they had already been trained to perform one task when they received one form of inter-cranial micro-stimulation (“a zap to the brain” is less technically correct, but better), and the other task when they received another kind of zap to the brain.

That’s some impressive rat training there, but it’s hardly telepathy.  We haven’t demonstrated that with the right technology rats can read each other’s minds or that we can send mental commands:   we’ve demonstrated that rats can be trained, through rewards, to respond to electrodes going off in their brains. The training is what makes all the difference.

Good for us … I guess.

As a side note, I’d also like to look at the success rate the experiment claims.  The decoder rats “interpreted” the signals correctly an average of 64.32 percent of the time.  That is to say, they got it right about 6 out of 10 times.

Which is higher than chance, certainly … but not so much higher as to be really impressive.

Yet it is a finding of statistical significance, and therefore counts.  Right?

I only ask because psychic researchers have frequently reported results this good in well designed experiments … only to have the scientific community insist that such numbers were too close to chance and ultimately just a fluke because, come on, telepathy?

There wouldn’t be a double standard here, would there?  The scientific community wouldn’t unthinkingly accept this kind of success rate when the experiment involves “rat neural interface,” but find the exact same results far too limited to possibly be relevant when it involves “telepathy” alone … would it?

I’m just asking.