As we stand today, the ways in which humans communicate emotion are mediated by tools, such as pictures, body language, and spoken and written language morphologies constructed of recombinatory signs. Imaginative refinement of these base communications, combined with advancements in technology, have resulted in poems, songs, books, telegraph messaging, telephone calling, radio and television broadcasting, social media, and online video gaming. Interactions using these tools have allowed people to keep in touch with friends and family at various levels of fidelity, but they don’t always allow for the kind of closeness that we’ve historically been accustomed to—coming home to a loved one, going out with a friend, or sharing a family meal. All of these examples speak to a sense of warmth and intimacy not always achieved through the words and images shared on social media. But what if we could share emotions directly from one brain to another? Would we be comfortable exploring the technology that allows us to keep our ever-mobile networks closer than ever before?
Affect, including attitude, mood, and emotional response, form an integral part of our communication process. However, emotions are difficult to express, translate, and convey through visual and text-based languages and their various mediums, often leading to misinterpretation and conflict. This is poised to change, as the convergence of neuroscience and IoT has the potential to connect human brains over a network, changing the way we communicate our subjective experiences with others.
What Do You Mean?
According to Mark Robert Waldman and Andrew Newberg, authors of Words Can Change Your Brain, every individual neuron in our brain has a mind of its own, as well as a neuroelectrical communication signal. This variance also applies to humans: Every individual develops a unique style of communication, but we are often not aware that other people understand our words differently from how we intend them to be understood. Because of this complicated space of inference and prediction, people impose their individual biases on incoming communications in order to make meaning out of the data. The result: Communication is facilitated poorly without us being aware of it, and this can lead to negative responses, such as confusion and frustration.
Communication with people from different cultures is also challenging. Cultures provide us with different modes of thinking, seeing, hearing, and interpreting the world. In many cases, the same words can mean different things to people from different cultures, and the same emotion can be expressed using different words. It’s therefore very common for misunderstandings and confusion to increase when the people conversing are not from the same place or do not speak the same mother tongue. The book Emotion by James Kalat and Michelle Shiota, for example, mentions an in-field research study done on Tahitian life and language that explains how they have 46 words for anger, yet not a single word for what we call sadness. Does the absence of this word mean that Tahitians do not ever feel sad? In contrast to the Tahitian language, the variability of word choices in American English that describe different kinds of sadness can completely skew the intended message with a wrongly chosen word. For instance, a person feeling blue at work on Monday isn’t necessarily depressed. If we had the technology to understand emotion by receiving a signal directly from our brains, we could prevent the potential for confusion and differences in opinion; it could help us become better aligned with the feelings of others, which could ultimately help us build stronger relationships.
How Do You Feel?
The ability to thoroughly express emotions via technological means can provide us with a better sense of mutual understanding. In the meantime, innovators are trying to revolutionize and improve how we communicate our emotional states, with the aim of bypassing traditional interactions that involve language, posture, and facial expression. For example, occupational therapists have developed a wearable touch vest technology, the T.Jacket, to apply air pressure to simulate the feeling of a warm hug, allowing people to comfort anyone who is stressed and anxious. On the other hand, the GER Mood Sweater interprets emotion using galvanic skin response sensors and then displays the wearer’s excitement levels with a whimsical, illuminated collar. These, as well as many other devices in the field of affective computing, give us insight as to how we can pervasively communicate emotions through new modalities. However, these manifestations are still only mediation tools that do not directly or seamlessly convey the actual state of an individual’s emotion from person to person.
There have been various attempts at experimenting with brainwaves to facilitate communication between people. For example, Necomimi’s brainwave-controlled cat ears detect the EEG of the wearer in order to show other people how relaxed or excited they are. Microsoft’s Moodscope allows us to measure our mood daily with an online card game based on psychology; the results can then be shared via email with friends who can support the user by elevating their mood. These devices have the potential to facilitate brain-to-brain communication, but they are still far from achieving it; they can only send brain signals to devices for analysis, but they cannot send analyzed data directly to the brain.
Can You Get to the Point?
Current brain-to-brain technologies require us to follow a certain set of steps in order to communicate our emotional states to others. The current transfer speed is slow and, although major strides have been made, further advancement is needed. The research on direct brain-to-brain communication via the internet by Giulio Ruffini, CEO of Starlab, estimates that the brain could only send two bits per minute. But future technological advancement could lead to a faster instant transfer of emotions via the internet. To be able to transmit emotions, researchers will have to figure out how to stimulate that segment of the brain. This becomes more difficult when researchers are trying to achieve this stimulation by external means, rather than invasive procedures.
There are various other technological unknowns in brain-to-brain communication. For instance, we often spend too much time managing messages received on various devices. In this era of spontaneous communication, this is not the most efficient way to share our emotions with others. If brains were to be seamlessly interconnected, there would be no more need to maintain this time-consuming behavior—we could simply share the emotional state of another person immediately. However, the sender may have to learn new methods for managing mental processes.
It would require a lot of focus to communicate a direct emotional signal or to address potential errors, such as sending to the wrong receiver or conveying an unintended affective state. Such new skills, as with learning how to read, write, edit multimedia footage, or master a dance, would require significant training and practice. Another challenge that would need to be addressed is the way in which we perceive the messages from other brains. Currently, any brain signals that are sent to us by others are perceived as being the same as the signals that are produced by our own brains, such as our thoughts or decisions. Given that neurons are all unique, however, facilitating brain-to-brain communication may require custom interpreter engines for each person using this system.
Is This What You Really Think?
Such complexity also exposes the dangers of a potentially hacked brain signal. If a hacker were to disrupt a brain-to-brain communication, how would the person receiving the signal differentiate between the hacked emotional communication and the intended communication? In what ways could this emotional hacking lead to new manifestations of emotional contagion (the tendency for two humans to subconsciously catch an emotion from each other)?
This phenomenon is similar to what happens when a flock of birds suddenly takes off because one of the birds is startled. Social contagion theory research by Stanford University states that feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. This contagious behavior is due to the presence of a cluster of cells in our brain called mirror neurons. In a similar fashion to how one person can inspire a whole crowd to clap and cheer, feelings or behaviors—even those that are undesired or harmful—can spread between people like a virus. If our brains were to be linked to a network that directly shares the emotions of the participants, there would be a danger that a rapid cascade of emotions could become overwhelming.
There Are so Many Questions…
Of course, it will take years to reach the stage where emotions are shared over the internet using brain-to-brain communication, and this type of technology will remain controversial until various security, privacy, and policy issues are addressed. Questions will arise, like what if we can design something that can directly alter certain neurons and make chemical changes to achieve a shared mental state? Will it make it possible to lease someone else’s brain or experiences? What if we could implement all these interactions using our subconscious mind? Would we be able to handle this shared emotional reality? Or would we drown in the cacophony?