Ethical Questions for Brain-to-Brain Communication

As science makes steps toward brain-to-brain communication, what ethical questions should society consider?

Brain-to-brain communication is a topic that will dominate neuroscience for much of this century, according to a story in the May issue of the Smithsonian magazine.

As part of a special report "Innovation for Good: Game Changers," the Smithsonian story profiles University of Washington research in brain-computer interfaces, and interviews I-LABS' Andrea Stocco and his collaborator Rajesh Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering.

Stocco and Rao, with I-LABS' Chantel Prat, are developing ways for human brains to send signals to each other. They started with sensory motor information, and are now working on the transfer of more complex brain processes.

Brain-to-brain communication could dramatically change not only how humans communicate, but also with how we treat brain-related medical conditions such as dementia, stroke and spinal-cord injuries.

The project, funded in part by the Keck Foundation, is just one aspect of the Stocco and Prat's research. They co-direct the Cognition and Cortical Dynamics Laboratory housed at I-LABS. The lab is also investigating individual differences in cognitive abilities, the neuroscience behind cognitive flexibility, why knowing a second language helps other forms of cognition, and much more.  

The Smithsonian story, "Why Brain-to-Brain Communication Is No Longer Unthinkable," brings more attention to their work with brain-computer interfaces and they hope that the story will inspire more public discussions of the ethical considerations of this technology.

"Most of the public concerns have focused on the possibility of mind-control," Stocco said. "With the present state of technology, this possibility is remote."

But other ethical issues related to brain-to-brain communication should be explored and debated. Here are some to consider:


We don't want others to know everything that's running through our heads. Fear, love, embarrassment are just a few examples of feelings that infuse our mental representations and that we want – at least most of the time – to keep private.

"If I am thinking of an airplane and I am afraid of flight, am I also communicating my fear of flight to the receiver?" Stocco explained. "What if I don't want to share my fear of flight? And what if the receiver does not want to feel it?"

Is That My Memory Or Yours?

If information flows from one person's brain to another, does the recipient brain know that the information originated elsewhere?

This is known as "limits of agency" or "perception of self."

"If some part of a person's memories are transferred to a second person, to what extent will the second person perceive them as their own?" Stocco said. "And would that matter?"

Shared Responsibility

One of the possible applications of brain-to-brain technology is the distribution of a single process, such as a motor action or a thought, across multiple brains. Which brings up an ethical issue: How can you tell where the process came from?

"If that is the case, who would be responsible, and to what degree, by a shared action?" Stocco said.