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Real-Life ‘Inception’? Researchers Implant False Experiences into People’s Brains



Remember the movie ‘Inception’ where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character implanted false ideas into the minds of unaware subjects?

A group of researchers attempted to perform something similar, only that it was not as impressive as on the screen, for obvious reasons. Modern science has a long way to go before things we see in popular sci-fi movies can become a reality. In any case, this is one more advancement in the field of ‘brain hacking,’ which comes just after the mind-reading system that projects one’s thoughts on a screen.

Scientists at the Brown University together with colleagues from Japan managed to implant false visual experiences into the brains of unaware test subjects, tricking them into seeing things that weren’t really there.

The experiment was based on the technique called neurofeedback, which involves constant monitoring in real time of the subjects’ brains. But except for just watching the participants’ neural activity, the researchers also influenced it.

In fact, this idea is not new – it was taken from the research conducted back in the 1960s, which demonstrated the ability of a person to regulate their body temperature or heart rate just by thinking about it. This time, the researchers wanted to see if it was possible to regulate other aspects of the neural activity.

The experiment

The research team showed a group of volunteers the images of a different combination of vertical and horizontal stripes in the green, red and gray backgrounds. All volunteers were connected to an MRI machine that measured their neurological activity in the V1 and V2, the areas of the brain responsible for the processing of visual stimuli.

During three days, the research team trained the volunteers to associate horizontal stripes with the color green and vertical stripes with the color red.

real-life inception experiment

Image credit: Watanabe et. al.

The participants of the experiment had no idea what purpose they were trained for. They simply thought that they were seeing the color read when in reality, they were looking at black and white stripes.

Moreover, when the volunteers were examined five months after the experiment, it was found that 6 out of 12 test subjects still exhibited associations between the lines and the colors.

Our brain functions are mostly based on associative processing, so association is extremely important. Now we know that this technology can be applied to induce associative learning,” said Professor Takeo Watanabe of the research team in a press release.


According to the research team, those false visual perceptions were not hallucinations but rather an experience similar to synesthesia, an intriguing neurological phenomenon that makes a person associate different senses with each other. People with this condition, who are referred to as synesthetes, have curious experiences, such as smelling colors or seeing sounds. For example, one artist with synesthesia turns famous songs into abstract visual art.

Image credit: Inception/Warner Bros.

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