The Frontal Cortex

Mind Control by Cell Phone

Over at Mind Matters, my other site, we just posted a rather interesting article on the ways in which ordinary cell phones can alter your patterns of brain activity, and even interfere with sleep. Here’s Doug Fields:

Hospitals and airplanes ban the use of cell phones, because their electromagnetic transmissions can interfere with sensitive electrical devices. Could the brain also fall into that category? Of course, all our thoughts, sensations and actions arise from bioelectricity generated by neurons and transmitted through complex neural circuits inside our skull. Electrical signals between neurons generate electric fields that radiate out of brain tissue as electrical waves that can be picked up by electrodes touching a person’s scalp. Measurements of such brainwaves in EEGs provide powerful insight into brain function and a valuable diagnostic tool for doctors. Indeed, so fundamental are brainwaves to the internal workings of the mind, they have become the ultimate, legal definition drawing the line between life and death.

Brainwaves change with a healthy person’s conscious and unconscious mental activity and state of arousal. Could the electrical signals coming from a phone affect certain brainwaves operating in resonance with cell phone transmission frequencies? After all, the caller’s cerebral cortex is just centimeters away from radiation broadcast from the phone’s antenna. Two studies provide some revealing news.

The first, led by Rodney Croft, of the Brain Science Institute, Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, tested whether cell phone transmissions could alter a person’s brainwaves. The researchers monitored the brainwaves of 120 healthy men and women while a Nokia 6110 cell phone–one of the most popular cell phones in the world–was strapped to their head. A computer controlled the phone’s transmissions in a double-blind experimental design, which meant that neither the test subject nor researchers knew whether the cell phone was transmitting or idle while EEG data were collected. The data showed that when the cell phone was transmitting, the power of a characteristic brain-wave pattern called alpha waves in the person’s brain was boosted significantly. The increased alpha wave activity was greatest in brain tissue directly beneath to the cell phone, strengthening the case that the phone was responsible for the observed effect.

Don’t panic: there’s still no evidence that cell phones cause brain tumors or anything awful like that. Nevertheless, the modern world is suffused with electromagnetic signals and, since the brain is an exquisitely sensitive electrical machine, it makes sense that we’d be mildly affected by all those waves hurtling through space. The skull isn’t a shield.

Comments

  1. #1 Kurt
    May 7, 2008

    Hmmm, maybe wearing my tinfoil hat is not such a silly idea after all…

  2. #2 Hank Roberts
    May 7, 2008

    I found this neat site that says they can take my skull and have it gold-plated to make it a Faraday cage and block all …

    Oh, wait ….

    No, seriously, thanks for covering this.

    Did you ever read Heinlein’s _Waldo_? There it was ‘broadcast power’ that hadn’t been tested well enough and was causing health problems for everyone.

    I wonder — with ‘rogue waves’ (which were considered myths until a few years ago) — on the ocean, all the various waves usually average out, except when they happen to coincide.

    Do we also expect there will be little events with a ‘rogue wave’ spike of energy here and there, as we increase the number and variety of electromagnetic sources.

    Let me put my head a little closer to the WiFi …

  3. #3 Coyote
    May 7, 2008

    While Microwaves are electromagnetic radiation, they are not ionizing. On contact with matter, they expend their energy as heat. They don’t cause electrons to jump free of their orbits. The only way microwave can generate electron movement is if they are quite finely tuned. Cellphone microwaves are tuned away from water’s absorbtion bands specifically so the work better in weather. Considering the majority of your body is water, you won’t be hurt by a cellphone.

    Also, microwave bands used in telecommunication can’t penetrate more than a few centimeters. Heck, the microwaves we use to cook with can’t penetrate more than 5cm. The radiation from a cellphone would have a hard time getting through your skull, let alone into your brain.

  4. #4 Akasha
    May 7, 2008

    Coyote, your hearing must be extraordinary if you hold your cell phone 5 cm. away from your head. I practically have to jam mine up my ear canal to hear properly.

    The study doesn’t claim that cell phones are cooking our brains–just causing our brainwaves to resonate with the phone’s broadcast. I’m sure it’s totally safe as long as whoever you’re talking to doesn’t whisper, “Shoot the president.”

  5. #5 Coyote
    May 8, 2008

    Coyote, your hearing must be extraordinary if you hold your cell phone 5 cm. away from your head. I practically have to jam mine up my ear canal to hear properly.

    Wow. You must be really ignorant if you don’t know the difference between microwaves, WHICH ARE LIGHT, and sound waves, which are pressure waves.

    The study doesn’t claim that cell phones are cooking our brains–just causing our brainwaves to resonate with the phone’s broadcast. I’m sure it’s totally safe as long as whoever you’re talking to doesn’t whisper, “Shoot the president.”

    In order to affect the brain, the microwaves need to penetrate to reach the brain.

    Another thing I’d like to point out, cellphones transmit and receive information while idle. Just because you’re not talking on it, doesn’t mean the cellphone isn’t sending. That means their control is flawed.

    I really would like to read the methodology from the actual paper though. This seems like bad science reporting from some paper.

  6. #6 coreydbarbarian
    May 8, 2008

    in this barbarian’s experience, when someone defends the safety of a specific technology in such absolute (and condescending) terms, there is often a financial interest behind the defense.

  7. #7 Coyote
    May 8, 2008

    I have no relationship in any way to the cellphone industry except that I happen to own one. Personally, I don’t much care for the things. They are not, however, dangerous.

    I vociferously defend the safety of cellphones not because I like cellphones or the cellphone industry. I do it because I hate woo. It’s the same reason I defend vaccines. They don’t cause autism. It’s the same reason I defend hormonal birth control. It doesn’t cause abortions; it can’t cause abortions. I defend reality against woo.

    Furthermore, the article seems to imply the researcher makes several unfounded claims. 1) That alpha waves imply internally focused thoughts instead of an idling state, against common consensus. 2) That the electrical signals in the brain are involved in the transmission of thoughts instead of being mere side-effects of the chemical signaling. 3) That very strong magnetic fields can block neural activity. If that were true, MRIs would be very dangerous pieces of equipment to place a patient in.

  8. #8 Laurie
    May 8, 2008

    I am as perturbed by bad science writing as anyone, but Coyote you seem to be reading a lot into this article that I don’t see.

    First, the variable in the study was whether or not the phone was transmitting, not whether or not someone was talking on it, so your objection about their control is baseless. (Unless you have reason to doubt that the people controlling the study don’t know what transmitting versus talking is). It would be pretty hard to do a double blind study with talking or not talking as the variable.

    Second, they made no claims about thought, just about change in the alpha waves when the phone was transmitting. They talk about the different theories about what alpha waves represent and mention that the majority opinion is that they rpresent “cortical idling.” I honestly have a little trouble seeing where your three unfounded claims come from. There is plenty (PLENNNNTY) of bad science writing out there: you don’t need to invent badness that isn’t actually there. With regards to number three, you should check out some studies about TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), in which researchers actually do disrupt neural activity using magnetic fields. It isn’t the magnetic field itself that disrupts the activity but rather switching the polarity of the field rapidly to induce an electric current. MRI machines are indeed very dangerous places to put human beings, and without carefully calculated sequences that take the subject’s body mass into consideration they could do a number of unpleasant things.

  9. #9 Laurie
    May 8, 2008

    Oh yeah. I came down here to say that if it’s affecting the area under the phone, it would be (unlikely but) really cool to see if verbal fluency were enhanced by talking on the phone using your left ear (pretty close to Broca’s and other language areas) versus your right.

    Now that’s a study that (if it worked) would certainly inspire some God-awful news stories.

  10. #10 Diana Williams
    May 10, 2008

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    ALWAYS

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    144,000
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  11. #11 Dr X
    May 10, 2008

    A small bone to pick. I’m surprised at the use of the term “brainwaves” in that article. The surface eeg measures synchronous activity of neural networks near the skull surface. It’s really a selective summation of neural activity. The graphic depiction over time looks like waves on paper, but the waves are, indeed, on paper, not in the brain. At least that’s how we talked about it when I studied sleep and worked with polysomnographies in a sleep lab as an undergraduate.

  12. #12 geciktirici
    February 15, 2009

    Hospitals and airplanes ban the use of cell phones, because their electromagnetic transmissions can interfere with sensitive electrical devices. Could the brain also fall into that category? Of course, all our thoughts, sensations and actions arise from bioelectricity generated by neurons and transmitted through complex neural circuits inside our skull. Electrical signals between neurons generate electric fields that radiate out of brain tissue as electrical waves that can be picked up by electrodes touching a person’s scalp.

  13. #13 Level 1
    June 10, 2009

    I was like Coyote until I read this article, now I don’t know what to think. Hopefully there will be more evidence soon.

    BTW, someone suggested that a person whispering “shoot the president” over a cell phone connection could have some mind-control like effect on the brain. It may make a nice joke, but that couldn’t actually work. Cell phone transmissions are in a special digital format that a human brain could not understand; furthermore they may be encrypted.

    Really old cell phones were analog, so theoretically a human brain could reproduce sounds from radio waves (just like the urban legend of braces receiving radio signals). However, those cell phones don’t exist any more.

  14. #14 Domingo Roaden
    October 11, 2011

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