Monday, December 21, 2009

Can your doctor read your mind?

There is considerable research being undertaken on new ways of communicating. And I don't just mean communicating with each other as we talk, sing, shout or cry. I mean ways of communicating with other objects, such as cars, computers and other electronic devices. I also mean communicating with people who are in other parts of the world, and who we may or may not know. And I also mean communicating with animals, with people who are deaf and blind, or who are profoundly physically or mentally disabled.

We all know of many examples of our unconscious mind seemingly taking over and informing us of events occurring before they do actually happen - we call it "déjà vue." I will never forget my first memory of this. I was watching a soccer game on television, and I suddenly "knew" that a goal was about to be scored in a certain way, by a particular player, and within a couple of minutes exactly what I "knew" happened.

There are many other examples of the unconscious mind influencing us, our behavior, or our decisions over the ages, and books have been written, societies and religions formed and history influenced on multiple occasions by the strength of our unconscious and the many unconscious or inexplicable communications that occur in our world.

But how will the power of our unconscious mind be influential in healthcare? And will it be somehow linked with the research on communication that is occurring around the world at this time? Will it occur in tandem with research that is trying to define our moods, and which uses electrical currents through our bodies to predict, for instance, suicidal intent?

Let's move to a more mundane form of communication. This article was written with the aid of a voice recognition system. I spoke into a microphone and words appeared on the screen, mostly accurate, but needing some corrections. I also now write my patients notes using a similar system - straight into their electronic records, which I can also control with the voice system. So we are certainly starting to use voice control systems in everyday life, even if they are not yet perfect. But what is the natural extension of these sorts of activities, and how might they be used in the field of healthcare?

We all know that we can communicate just by looking at people. We also know that we can tell what another person is thinking, particularly if that person is very close or important to us. I know that I and my wife often realize that we are thinking the same thing at the same time - and much more frequently than should occur just by coincidence, or because we are in the same environment.

So will be able to eventually use these extra powers of communication with our doctors? Will it be possible for our doctors to literally "read" our minds - to download our thoughts straight into our electronic medical records? It is certainly possible for humans to use their minds to control other objects, without even needing to talk. A number of experiments have shown that our electrical brainwaves can be trained and used to control other objects, be they an artificial limb, or a computer joystick, and these experiments offer substantial hope to severely disabled people.

I think the answer is certainly "yes". But with a caveat. This will not occur soon. And we will have to have considerable ethical debates before any such programs are introduced into clinical practice. But it should be possible. After all, a doctors primary diagnostic skill is pattern recognition - we see simple, and often unusual patterns in massive amounts of data collected from patients, and equate these patterns with a diagnosis. So why should we not be able to extend this often unconscious skill in pattern recognition to include the power to "read" our patients more accurately. All doctors know certain colleagues who are frequently regarded as superior diagnosticians who already almost seem able to do this. So I suspect that in future, as we discover more about the interaction between the mind, the brain and the environment, that we will develop physical means of "mindreading". I wonder how that will affect the doctor-patient relationship?

Peter Yellowlees MD has recently published "Your health in the Information Age - how you and your doctor can use the Internet to work together" - available at most online bookstores.


  1. I just installed Dragon NaturallySpeaking v.10 to my netbook. It amazes me: a baby size $300 laptop runs such a powerful tool with such low requirement, coupled w/ a bluetooth microphone, it makes work much natural.
    Santa, why not just give every doc such a unit for Christmas? ^O^ Speaking of that, I have an internist friend from UCSD asked me to fix his laptop... so I found his prized toy still has a floppy disk drive and its weight can kill me easily. Sure, I rolled myself to the floor laughing.
    This version of Dragon costs $250. The previous version I had 2 years ago was over $800. This technology has humanized much since...

  2. Every audience can extract some nutrients from the movie Avatar. It is Pocahontas/John Wayne, and SecondLife /Microsoft vision on mega doses of steroids...

    I have appreciated one good message from the movie which is compatible to your message here. ^-^, not trying to be a Scooby: the planet Pandora is alive with neural connections. The natives speak to the "grandma willow tree"; they make connections with animals by putting their hair into the animal's receptacle; and plants show their feelings...

    Anyway, a great, great, great movie! Although we all had motion sickness from the IMAX effect, we agreed to watch it again in the regular theater.

  3. CES 2010 in Vegas 1/7-1/10:

  4. 2010 Davos Tech Pioneers
    Videos of the World Economic Forum's Technology Pioneers 2010 answering the questions: 1) What it is about your company/project that makes it so special? 2) What country best facilitates starting a tech company? 3) What makes an innovator? 4) How does your company contribute to improving the state of the world?

  5. I explain to people that since my religion is universalism, I do talk like an Indian astrologist, and I do communicate to the sky like an ancient Mayan (with my kids)... yeah, I'm Scooby-dooing again. ^-^ Strangely enough, I pretty much already had the ideas of my "Care Phone" designs and the "Care Net" model before I came to Sacramento. At then, I knew nobody in this strange town, I didn't study Dr. Y or Dr. N, or read any such journals; but I came, and found Roma is already built. ^_^ Is this an incidental Karma?
    I thought I have read too many books in philosophy, economics, politics, futuristics and nature, cooking, gardening, art, dance, music, etc... and have traveled too much, and played too many toys in my "short life" in the US. Strangely enough, somebody else has done all of the above and beyond in the same bold and open fashion of curiosity and diversity. I didn't know until I read this book (actually, I only noted and commented on the preface, reference and chapter 9 Future). Is this another Karma? I'm the embodiment, the very Avatar of this "future". It's already happened. We didn't know until it directly hits on our face...
    So, I talked about my role not just being a simple disciple of eHealth, but an eHealth 2.0, heading to the open society "extropia". (By the way, I didn't know the Karma of Utopia either.)
    Happy New Year 2010... no, I never thought that Nostradamus 2012 was negative in prediction,... it's about time of change.

  6. I am just hoping that thought-reading software can help overcome the hurdle that I have with voice-recognition, that I do not speak the way I write. This inconsistency really hampers my ability to get good dictation. I thought it would help with medical dictation as this is more phrase driven (not sentence structured) but that seemed to confuse Dragon in its attempt to put words into context.

    How do you overcome this challenge?

    Thought transfer would be incredible - certainly would be a whole new set of "training" in modulating information (for folks with brains that are always spinning).

    Good stuff!