Mind Reading

John Carey, chairman of last year's Man Booker Prize judges, explores the process of reading.



We have always thought that we'd like to be able to read others' minds. Humans are, of course, excellent at disguising our real opinions. We've wanted to be able to know what people are thinking but not saying, whether it's trivially about how we look or whether it's seriously about what really happened when a suspect is being interrogated in a court of law.

In science fiction, writers have often used mind reading as a device for one alien species to be able to communicate with and influencing another life form.

But now researchers have devised ways to transfer thoughts from one person to another. The aim of this research is to help people with severe brain injury and other disabilities to communicate better. Neuroscientists have used technology to connect the brains of people and then read the signals they pick up. Others are concentrating on eye-gaze technology, speeding it up so that by staring at words on a screen the user can make a machine speak a sentence. But once the technology works it will be impossible to keep it away from people who see other uses for it.

Gaia Vince explores the ethical problems that follow from technology that captures thoughts. She looks at the controversial privacy issues raised by the technology. Could a machine speak your private thoughts and carry out the internal editing process that we all rely on?


How do words on a page create pictures in the mind?


Does reading in a different language or page layout affect our understanding of a text?


John Carey investigates the importance of the personal imagination each reader brings to a text. He talks to neuroscientists about the reading process, and asks authors Sue Townsend and Francis Spufford to explain their experience of reading.


John spends a day working as a barrister, grappling with complex legal papers, and talks to neuropsychologist Matthew Lambon Ralph about the relationship between what we read, how we read it, and how much we remember when the page is turned.

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John talks to people who buy and sell books about the choices they make as readers.