Scientists say they're getting closer to Matrix-style instant learning

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What price effortless learning? In a paper published in the latest issue of Science, neuroscientists say they've developed a novel method of learning, that can cause long-lasting improvement in tasks that demand a high level of visual performance.


And while the so-called neurofeedback method could one day be used to teach you kung fu, or to aid spinal-injury patients on the road to rehabilitation, evidence also suggests the technology could be used to target people without their knowledge, opening doors to numerous important ethical questions.

According to a press release from the National Science Foundation:

New research published today in the journal Science suggests it may be possible to use brain technology to learn to play a piano, reduce mental stress or hit a curve ball with little or no conscious effort. It's the kind of thing seen in Hollywood's "Matrix" franchise.

Experiments conducted at Boston University (BU) and ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, recently demonstrated that through a person's visual cortex, researchers could use decoded functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to induce brain activity patterns to match a previously known target state and thereby improve performance on visual tasks.

Think of a person watching a computer screen and having his or her brain patterns modified to match those of a high-performing athlete or modified to recuperate from an accident or disease. Though preliminary, researchers say such possibilities may exist in the future.

But here's the bit that's really interesting (and also pretty creepy): the researchers found that this novel learning approach worked even when test subjects weren't aware of what they were learning:

"The most surprising thing in this study is that mere inductions of neural activation patterns...led to visual performance improvement...without presenting the feature or subjects' awareness of what was to be learned," said lead researcher Takeo Watanabe. He continues:

We found that subjects were not aware of what was to be learned while behavioral data obtained before and after the neurofeedback training showed that subjects' visual performance improved specifically for the target orientation, which was used in the neurofeedback training.

Is this research mind-blowing and exciting? Absolutely. I mean come on — automated learning? Yes. Sign me up. But according to research co-author Mitsuo Kawato, the neurofeedback mechanism could just as soon be used for purposes of hypnosis or covert mind control. And that... I'm not so keen on.

"We have to be careful," he explains, "so that this method is not used in an unethical way." [Science via NSF]
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J.D. Buffington

"Think of a person watching a computer screen and having his or her brain patterns modified..."

Didn't Fringe have an episode based on this very idea? Olivia's niece began to fall prey to it...

Under strictly controlled conditions, this could be awesome for the military, I mean, think of that scene in the Matrix when Trinity needs to learn to fly the helicopter! But considering how stupid we're getting since we're all so connected to the internet now and not actually relying on memory like we should when we can just look something up with our phones...I don't think this could ever substitute actual learning and practice. If you learned kung-fu from a previous master, everyone would have that ONE set of kung-fu moves, including defense, everyone would have the same pre-programmed moves which makes me wonder how adaptable the knowledge is if it's downloaded to you instead of learned in your own way.