No, scientists can’t upload knowledge to your brain Matrix-style

But it sure makes a cool headline

It’s been an exciting few days for fans of The Matrix. According to the major media outlets, a scientific study has found that knowledge can be uploaded instantly to someone’s brain like when Neo learns Kung fu. It sounds like a dream come true. Finally we can learn languages overnight, beat chess masters with little effort, and become expert artists. Riiiiight.

The Independent claimed, “Scientists develop Matrix-style technology capable of uploading knowledge to your brain.” The Telegraph similarly reported that “Scientists discover how to upload knowledge to your brain.” RT are perhaps the guiltiest with their headline: “Take the red pill: Researchers develop ‘Matrix’-style brain stimulator that instantly teaches skill.” It sounds like a dream come true but please ignore all of it.

Scientists haven’t discovered a way to instantly upload knowledge to the brain. They haven’t even found a way to do it slowly. As usual there’s a grain of truth in the sensationalist headlines and the science is genuinely interesting so there’s no need to exaggerate it. The study shows that scientists recorded brain activity from real pilots and transmitted these brainwave patterns to newbies learning to fly and found that they learned faster. It could be an interesting find if true but it’s a long way from uploading skills directly to your brain.

It pays to be sceptical of science as not all studies are of the same quality. Ignoring the sensationalist claim that we can become the next Neo, there are reasons to be cautious about the results anyway. The scientists who published the study work for HRL Laboratories, which is owned by Boeing and General Motors. They have a patent pending for this technology already and that’s a red flag to be noted because it could affect results directly or indirectly. If there’s a corporate incentive for getting a study published, it’s wise to be suspicious.

The study used a small number of participants: only 6 pilots and 32 participants. It’s not wise to extrapolate the results of studies like this to the general population. Another potential issue is that the study was published in a Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, a journal with a history of nonsense studies that have turned out to be untrue.

The official press release is honest and makes no such claims that knowledge can be instantly uploaded to someone’s brain. We have the media to blame for that story. Scepticism aside, this could be really big news. If it’s easier to learn skills while having the brainwaves of an expert transmitted into your head then it could transform training techniques and education in so many walks of life.

The science is genuinely interesting without the need to drum up sensationalist claims and ties to movies. As Douglas Adams once said, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” Science is awesome and it’s easy to get excited but results from studies can be wrong for countless different reasons. Always take science reporting with a pinch of salt and never read too much into the headlines.

You can read about the results here.


Main image © Warner Bros. Pictures

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