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What’s on your computer’s mind?

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12 October 2010

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A team led by Paul Howard-Jones (Education) and Rafal Bogacz (Computer Science) scanned the brains of players as they battled against an artificial opponent in a computer game. In the game, each player took turns with the computer to select one of four boxes whose payouts were simulating the ebb and flow of natural food sources.  

When players were observing their competitor make selections, the players’ brains were activated as if they were performing these actions themselves. The top panel of the figure shows brain areas that were more active when players made actions with left hand than right hand. The bottom panel shows areas active when the player observed competitor making analogous actions.

Such ‘mirror neuron’ activities occur when we observe the actions of other humans but here the players knew their opponent was just a computer and no animated graphics were used. Previously, it has been suggested that the mirror neuron system supports a type of unconscious mind-reading that helps us, for example, judge others’ intentions.

“….We were surprised to see the mirror neuron system activating in response to a computer. If the human brain can respond as though a computer has a mind, that’s probably good news for those wishing to use the computer as a teacher.”

This research will soon appear in the following paper:

Paul A. Howard-Jones, Rafal Bogacz, Jee H. Yoo, Ute Leonards and Skevi Demetriou (2010) The neural mechanisms of learning from competitors. Neuroimage, 53: 790-799.