No, We Can’t “Upload Knowledge To Your Brain”

By Neuroskeptic | March 6, 2016 6:46 am


According to a spectacularly misleading article in the Telegraph: Scientists discover how to ‘upload knowledge to your brain’

Feeding knowledge directly into your brain, just like in sci-fi classic The Matrix, could soon take as much effort as falling asleep, scientists believe. Researchers claim to have developed a simulator which can feed information directly into a person’s brain and teach them new skills in a shorter amount of time…

Researchers from HRL Laboratories, based in California, studied the electric signals in the brain of a trained pilot and then fed the data into novice subjects as they learned to pilot an aeroplane in a realistic flight simulator… subjects who received brain stimulation via electrode-embedded head caps improved their piloting abilities and learnt the task 33 per cent better than a placebo group.

Except… that’s not what happened at all.

It’s true that the researchers electrically stimulated some volunteers’ brains, using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). It’s true that the goal was to try and make the volunteers learn better, as described in the paper. But no-one was uploading anything – certainly not data recorded from ‘the electrical signals of a trained pilot’ which is not mentioned in the paper at all. That’s science fiction. Or rather, journalistic fiction.

In fact, the tDCS was intended to put the brain into a state such that it would learn faster – to somehow boost its natural neuroplasticity. When you think about it, this is no more Matrix-like than if you, say, drank a cup of coffee before studying for an exam. In one case the stimulation is electrical, in the other it’s chemical, but you don’t download knowledge in either case.

But it gets worse. The Telegraph reports that the tDCS was effective – it made people learn 33% better on a flight simulator task. Wow! But it didn’t. tDCS had no effect on mean performance on any of the five performance indicators on the flight sim task. The only significant result was that on some of the metrics, stimulation was associated with significantly reduced between-subject variance, i.e. it made people more similar to one another (but not better on average).

The authors conclude

The observed reduction in group variability in online learning may be attributed to “convergence to the mean” (i.e., increasing online learning rates of low performing individuals and reducing online learning rates of high performing individuals).

However as the groups in this study were very small (32 participants were split across four groups, of 7-10 people each), the variance was rather noisy. The authors themselves mention “exceptionally high within-group variance.” To be honest, I would want to see a lot more data before I was convinced that something as unusual as ‘convergence to the mean’ was happening.

Either way, the Telegraph article is wrong about 33% increases in learning performance. The press release from HRL Laboratories about the study seems to be the source of most of the errors, including the Matrix analogy. But we must free our minds from the illusion of press releases, Neo. Remember… all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.

Thanks to Henrik Vogt for pointing out this paper to me!

ResearchBlogging.orgChoe J, Coffman BA, Bergstedt DT, Ziegler MD, & Phillips ME (2016). Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Modulates Neuronal Activity and Learning in Pilot Training. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 10 PMID: 26903841

CATEGORIZED UNDER: funny, media, neurofetish, papers, select, Top Posts
  • Uncle Al

    In the basement of the University of Victoria Department of Chemistry is an older superconducting FT NMR that runs protons or C-13. Switching nuclei requires crawling under the magnet – putting your head in the field divergence sweet spot of the unshielded solenoid – and diddling a switch. Everybody who emerges giggles. Even the NMR lady shimmied out from under the water heater and giggled. The NMR lady never giggles. I carefully avoided being checked out on the instrument.

    Never let somebody experiment with your grey pudding. Remember the retro-progression of mind-destroying drugs, electroconvulsive therapy, pre-frontal lobotomy, and literally smashing your head with a chrome-plated hammer so people who were psychological nuisances were shut up. The voices in your head never stop for breath. Now you know the difference. Get over it. If you want accelerated learning, take speed and be long-term billed for the price of admission.

    • Vincent Bébécoco Baws

      I loled so hard at this. <3

      • Frank

        Did you fart?

    • jhewitt123

      The NMR lady never giggles if and only if the NMR lady always giggles

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  • GabrielleD

    I actually dug the paper up to read it to verify its accuracy, then lost all respect for the scientific journalists at Telegraph.

    • Neuroskeptic

      I actually wondered if maybe there were two papers, and the Telegraph was talking about a different one!

      But no, as far as I can see, there’s just this one paper, and The Telegraph is just completely wrong about it.

      • reed1v

        Or there are two papers, and they got the wrong one; perhaps the right one that was wrong and thus was wrong.

  • John Steed

    My daughter used tDCS when preparing for the GRE, she gets her doctorate in May.

  • Matthias Ziegler

    As a contributing author of the original paper, I would like to thank you for your post. Your understanding of our paper is much more appropriate to what we did than what the telegraph article portrayed. I believe it is exciting work, but only a start. Much more work into tDCS needs to be done for a better understanding of what is occurring and what the implications are.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Thanks very much! I’m glad you like it.

      • reed1v

        Better understanding of sloppy work? What is “better” to understand?

        • Neuroskeptic

          I wouldn’t say the study itself is sloppy. It seems to have been quite comprehensive, multiple methods were used to look at brain function (EEG, fNIRS) and task performance.

          The problem is the small sample size.

          • reed1v

            Would debate the sample size issue. After all most, if not all, psychological “experiments” involve very small samples from a highly unrepresentative population–usually undergraduate males at state universities. The “results” of the reported paper raise too many questions about their validity.

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  • Woolwit

    HRL Laboratories certainly shares some of the blame. Check out the video they made to promote the paper. Is it that the bigger the buzz the more likely they are to renew their DARPA contracts?

    • reed1v

      Everyone knows DARPA funds mainly loony tune ideas, most of which have the credence of a high school sophomore’s attempt to prove you can trisect an angle with a compass and straight edge(which possibly was a funded DARPA project at one time).

      • CMAA

        “Everyone” in your crowd, perhaps.

        • reed1v

          Ok, More precise are the military contractors RAND, ADLittle, Harbridge House, BoozAllanHamilton, and so forth who have complained about the level of frivolity in DARPA’s contracts. Even GAO has raised its eyebrows about pseudo scientific research being done by the agency.

          • CMAA

            And your links…..

          • reed1v

            30 plus years working with the beltway bandits.

          • CMAA

            An ‘Accessory to the Crime?” 😉

          • reed1v

            The Cold War really was a lot of fun.

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  • Jess

    That’s really bizarre. The direct quotes from the lead researcher in the lab’s own press release seem to bear no resemblance to the actual study. I think the clue might be in the last line ‘The results from the expert brain patterns are the subject of subsequent manuscript(s).’ Maybe the mix up is that the press release mainly pertains to unpublished work?

    • Neuroskeptic

      That’s possible. But the Telegraph clearly missed this point, as they said

      “[Researchers] studied the electric signals in the brain of a trained pilot and then fed the data into novice subjects as they learned to pilot an aeroplane in a realistic flight simulator. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience…”

      i.e. according to the Telegraph, all of the results were in the published paper.

      • Jess

        Nevertheless, I’m somewhat reassured that it wasn’t plucked *completely* out of thin air by the Telegraph. The press release also seems confused about which results come from where:
        “”We measured the brain activity patterns of six commercial and military pilots, and then transmitted these patterns into novice subjects as they learned to pilot an airplane in a realistic flight simulator,” he says.

        The study, published in the February 2016 issue of the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience…”

        The bit about subsequent manuscripts is just tacked on the end, separate from the rest of the text and very easy to miss.

    • OWilson

      Newspaper science news is notoriously misleading.

      There’s usually the study referred to, with its results. There’s your headline.

      Then they go to their favorite usual suspects for comments to “explain:” the results.

      Often, even the folks involved in a study don’t like what they find, if it doesn’t match their prior bias. Then it all becomes politically ambiguous.

      A good example is NASA who recently completed a study of Antarctic ice, and stated incontrovertabley that Antarctic Ice was accumulating rather than declining these last 20 years.


      But the obviously disappointed lead investigator’s quotes to the anxious press were as follows:

      “The findings do not mean that Antarctica is not in trouble, Zwally notes. “I know some of the climate deniers will jump on this, and say this means we don’t have to worry as much as some people have been making out,” he says. “It should not take away from the concern about climate warming.”

      And nobody laughed :)

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  • mambo_bab

    I think upload may be easier than download. There was a example for false memory. But it only affected a part of memory.

    I think consciousness mechanism needs to be clarified as well as memory mechanism before considering upload/download.

    The new hypothesis of consciousness mechanism. – Please try to CLICK consciousness toy model program.

  • Hafsteinn Helgason

    With genetics primarily involved with learning paces, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever have mind-uploading at all and it’s doubtful that said pace can be increased with chemical or electric stimulation. This is a job for genetic reconfiguration.

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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