Neuroscience imitates G.I. Joe


In the process of trying to downsize boxes of childhood things, I stumbled across a surprising piece of contemporary neuroscience in the dusty pages of a comic book from 1983. Specifically, in Issue 10 of Marvel’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, the villainous Dr. Venom introduces his “Brainwave Scanner,” a device that learns to read minds by learning the mapping between sensory stimuli and EEG responses:


This is actually an increasingly popular approach to analyzing brain activity in the neurosciences. It has been perhaps most strikingly used by Jack Gallant’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley. For example, in 2011, members of his lab attempted to decode the frames of a movie from people’s brain activity as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging. The results were beautiful, phantasmagorical images that resembled water-damaged impressionistic paintings but nonetheless exhibited some striking similarities to the movies being viewed.

The movie shown to an individual [Left] and the inferred image “decoded” from the individual’s brain activity when watching the movie (Nishimoto et al., 2011).

Although, the accuracy of the decoding is far less than what would be needed to identify the location of G.I. Joe headquarters, brain decoding will undoubtedly improve as machine learning algorithms become yet more powerful and the resolution of our measures of brain function increases.

I am impressed that Larry Hama, the author of that and almost every other issue of Marvel’s G.I. Joe series, had the insight that a brain decoding machine would need to have training data derived from known sensory stimuli. Has anyone else seen this idea in fiction (or science) prior to 1983?

P.S. Four years later in Marvel’s G.I. Joe Yearbook #3, the brainwave scanner shows up again under the control of orthodontist-gone-bad Dr. Mindbender. This time though, Snake-Eyes is able to destroy the machine by enhancing his EEG alpha activity via a Zen trance. Just think of what Snake-Eyes would have done to the machine if he had blinked.




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