November 12th, 2011
10:00 PM ET

My Take: Keep government out of mind-reading business

Editor's Note: Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D., is director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

By Paul Root Wolpe, Special to CNN

(CNN) - “My thoughts, they roam freely. Who can ever guess them?”

So goes an old German folk song. But imagine living in a world where someone can guess your thoughts, or even know them for certain. A world where science can reach into the deep recesses of your brain and pull out information that you thought was private and inaccessible.

Would that worry you?

If so, then start worrying. The age of mind reading is upon us.

Neuroscience is advancing so rapidly that, under certain conditions, scientists can use sophisticated brain imaging technology to scan your brain and determine whether you can read a particular language, what word you are thinking of, even what you are dreaming about while you are asleep.

The research is still new, and the kinds of information scientists can find through brain imaging are still simple. But the recent pace of progress in neuroscience has been startling and new studies are being published all the time.

In one experiment, researchers at Carnegie Mellon looked at images of people’s brains when they were thinking of some common objects – animals, body parts, tools, vegetables – and recorded which areas of their brains activated when they thought about each object.

The scientists studied patterns of brain activity while subjects thought about 58 such objects. Then they predicted what the person’s brain would look like if researchers gave them a brand new object, like “celery.”

The scientists’ predictions were surprisingly accurate.

Many scholars predicted as recently as a few years ago that we would never get this far. Now we have to ask: If we can tell what words you are thinking of, is it much longer before we will be able to read complex thoughts?

In another experiment, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany, sought out a group of “lucid dreamers” - people who remain aware that they are dreaming and even maintain some control over their dreams while they sleep.

The researchers asked the subjects to clench either their right hand or left hand in their dreams, then scanned their brain while they slept. The subjects’ motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement, lit up in the same manner it would if a person clenched their left hand while awake – even though the actual hand of the sleeping subjects never moved.

The images revealed that the subjects were dreaming of clenching their left fists.

Throughout human history, the inner workings of our minds were impenetrable, known only to us and, perhaps, to God. No one could see what you were thinking, or know what you were feeling, unless you chose to reveal it to them.

In fact, the idea of being able to decipher what is going on in that three pounds of grey mush between our ears seemed an impossible task even a couple of decades ago.

Now, for the first time in human history, we are peering into the labyrinth of the mind and pulling out information, perhaps even information you would rather we did not know.

Neuroscientists are actively developing technologies to create more effective lie detectors, to determine if people have been at a crime scene, or to predict who may be more likely to engage in violent crime.

As the accuracy and reliability of these experiments continue to improve, the temptation will be strong to use these techniques in counter-terrorism, in the courtroom, perhaps even at airports.

And if brain imaging for lie detection is shown to be reliable, intelligence agencies may want to use it to discover moles, employers may want to use it to screen employees, schools to uncover vandals or cheaters.

But should we allow it?

I believe not. The ability to read our thoughts threatens the last absolute bastion of privacy that we have. If my right to privacy means anything, it must mean the right to keep my innermost thoughts safe from the prying eyes of the state, the military or my employer.

My mind must remain mine alone, and my skull an inviolable zone of privacy.

Right now, our right to privacy – even the privacy of our bodies – ends when a judge issues a warrant. The court can order your house searched, your computer files exposed, and your diary read. It can also order you to submit to a blood test, take a drug screen, or to provide a DNA sample.

There is no reason, right now, that it could not also order a brain scan.

Right now, the technology is not reliable enough for the courts to order such tests. But the time is coming, and soon.

Eventually, courts will have to decide whether it is allowable to order a defendant to get a brain scan. There is even an interesting question of whether forcing me to reveal my inner thoughts through a brain scan might violate my Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

But not even a court order should be enough to violate your right to a private inner life. The musings of my mind and heart are the most precious and private possessions that I have, the one thing no one can take away from me.

Let them search my house, if they must, or take some blood, if that will help solve a case. But allowing the state to probe our minds ends even the illusion of individual liberty, and gives government power that is far too easy to abuse.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Root Wolpe.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Culture & Science • Ethics

soundoff (999 Responses)
  1. Ron San Bruno, Ca

    If it can be imagined it will be done, now or later with each advancement technology will open new doors and new intrusions .Its called insanity.

    November 13, 2011 at 4:39 am |
  2. Tupster

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said this violates the 5th amendment. First, imagine we have a device that mute people can use to speak that uses this technology to read their minds directly (never mind that we could use simpler technologies to do this). This device translates your thought into sound and you control what it says and you can choose not to incriminate yourself. What if it had a mode that would respond without allowing the user to inhibit it? For example, you ask a question and the device answers the question using your thoughts without you being able to stop it? How could that not be a 5th amendment violation? How is that different than a device that does the same thing to suspects and defendants?

    November 13, 2011 at 4:34 am |
    • Sd

      Should we get butt fcked by snoopy.

      This is why you don't f have progressive governance. Because you get stupid s–t like this.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:38 am |
    • some dude

      I am a legitimate victim of mind control, most likely perpetrated by the United States government. Reading thoughts is one thing, forcing them upon someone is quite another. Imagine if I told you the United States government could take possession of your body as if it was their own, and walk you around and live your life without your permission, including speaking through you?

      Now if I were to tell someone that, I know the one thing that is most likely to happen:

      1) The audience will assume I am insane, and immediately barrage me with criticism based on their ignorance (such as "I've never heard of that! It doesn't exist!").

      I find this occurrence most troublesome, as I have been a victim of this type of torture and abuse for somewhere around 15 years. I have personally lived through it's development, as a human test subject, and what I have to say is: it's most important to educate the masses about this because as long as it isn't considered possible (a round earth revolving around the sun) legitimate victims of high-tech crime will go unnoticed.

      Have you ever tried reporting a high-tech crime to the CIA/FBI/NSA?
      Do you honestly think they would believe you if you told them the truth?
      Get me my freedom, I have much to share and multiple lawsuits against the FCC, my local police station, the CIA and the FBI that need be redeemed. Don't tell me that I forgotten, that simply isn't an option for someone living with "big brother" listening, one dimension most fail to understand is the length of time that "every waking moment of your life" consists of.

      Another important note:
      I feel that very few truly understand the implications of controlling the brain–as most of it's functions are abstracted from the.. Individual.

      When the time comes, ensure there are proper means of detecting and eradicating this horrible type of crime, please.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:43 am |
    • Charge Nurse Betty

      @sum dude
      The problem is, you ARE insane.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  3. janus

    what would happen if they examined GWBs brain?!
    what would they find?!

    November 13, 2011 at 4:31 am |
    • Random

      WOW! My people did that without me even asking. Cool with me.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:13 am |
  4. James

    what am I thinking?

    November 13, 2011 at 4:23 am |
  5. C. Smythe

    So combine them bible thumpers with government and give them the power to read minds and the USA will be a better place . . . so what idiot scientist thinks this is a good idea? Oh . . . the end is near . . .

    November 13, 2011 at 4:23 am |
    • Random

      Scientists don't ask that question until they have completed. Ask J. Robert Oppenheimer.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:19 am |
    • Scott

      Bible thumpers, rabid atheists and everyone in between should not have access to such a device. Period.

      November 13, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  6. Jeremy

    Sounds like the thought police will soon be a reality. George Orwell predicted twitter with "newspeak" and now this...

    November 13, 2011 at 4:18 am |
    • Timetraveler

      Twitter couldn't be farther away from Newspeak.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:29 am |
  7. Passive Aggresive

    Comment 40

    Wow, I could keep commenting until I got to a thousand and still have done nothing, said nothing, accomplished nothing, and persueded no one. Bloggers....get a life!

    November 13, 2011 at 2:04 am |
    • Mirosal

      Practice what you preach. If you have nothing to say, then just go to bed.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:18 am |
    • Passive Aggresive

      I would but I am passive aggressive.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  8. Passive Aggresive

    Comment 39

    November 13, 2011 at 2:01 am |
  9. Passive Aggresive

    Comment 38

    November 13, 2011 at 2:01 am |
  10. V

    Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
    In death's dream kingdom
    These do not appear:
    There, the eyes are

    Sunlight on a broken column
    There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the wind's singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:21 am |
    • Passive Aggresive

      And then
      Upon my face
      My sunglasses I did don....
      And the world
      Was no longer a breaking dawn
      But instead a party.....
      A party till a redundant dawn.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:26 am |
    • V


      November 13, 2011 at 1:31 am |
  11. concern villager

    @ Kulera....you are idiot!You have no proof of your stupid idea....are you drunk? Get some sleep first before posting your comment here,this is a serious discussion...you are OUT!

    November 13, 2011 at 12:43 am |
    • Passive Aggresive

      You understood that?

      November 13, 2011 at 12:56 am |
  12. KULERA

    As a religious man i think God will allow it if he allow it then we are in doomed!We will be tossed to and fro.....GI ATAY!

    November 13, 2011 at 12:39 am |
    • Passive Aggresive

      Kulera, can you re-post in English so I can understand your post?

      November 13, 2011 at 12:53 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      I think what this moron is trying to say is that god has control over everything...it's sad when people become so brainwashed that they still fall for such nonsense. Maybe someday he'll grow up and realize that believing in fairy tales is childish. God is about as real as the Easter bunny or Pinocchio.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:52 am |
    • Mirosal

      I always thought that "god's" coming would be at the same time as the easter bunny, santa, and the tooth fairy.. maybe they can carpool with the bogey-man? lol

      November 13, 2011 at 6:04 am |
  13. V

    What do you have to hide, Dr. Wolpe?

    November 13, 2011 at 12:25 am |
    • hippypoet

      occasionally you meet a nice one like ET but they usually turn out to be some kind of giant lizard!

      or how about – I came here to chew bubble gum and kick @ss, and I'm all out of bubble gum!


      November 13, 2011 at 12:31 am |
    • V

      We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget...

      November 13, 2011 at 12:54 am |
    • Passive Aggresive

      Forget what?

      November 13, 2011 at 12:56 am |
    • Mirosal

      Pretty soon.... "Resistance is futile. You will be as.similated."

      November 13, 2011 at 12:56 am |
  14. Charge Nurse Betty

    This is hysterical. OF COURSE the "faith" community, which has their entire paradigm based on their concept of "souls" and "person-hood" is going to be threatened by neuroscience. All there, is brain cells. That's it. It's as simple as that. This guy wants the myth of the "oh-so-spo'oky-mysterious" workings of the brain not to be exposed for what it really is. Chemical reactions. That's it. Get over it.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:05 am |
    • HotAirAce

      We can expect attempts by the religiots to limit the development of brain imaging technology, much like the ban on stem cell research. How many will suffer because the next version of MRI systems is banned?

      November 13, 2011 at 12:11 am |
    • Passive Aggresive

      I am Gozer. Are you the Key Master?

      November 13, 2011 at 12:55 am |
    • V

      My PhD is in neuroscience – I enjoy neuroscience. I mean I really like it, you know? It's not something I can describe. More than just a feeling. Please dont ban it!

      November 13, 2011 at 1:10 am |
    • Passive Aggresive

      V – Really?

      November 13, 2011 at 1:18 am |
    • V

      Why, yes – Emory University. Not so long ago, really.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:25 am |
    • Passive Aggresive


      November 13, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • Mike R

      Which is the cause and which is the effect: chemical reaction or thought reaction? That depends if both truelly exist in the same physical/energy plane that we know, so far, the universe to be....with it's known dimensions.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:50 am |
    • Charge Nurse Betty

      If you actually think your thoughts are somehow separate from the chemical reactions which cause them, ((ie you SEE, ( a chemical reaction in your visual system), a threat, and you react with FEAR)), then you have never taken a psychology/science course. Thoughts indeed. Hahahahahaha.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Steve

      It's all chemical reactions, but the truth of the matter is that the "soon" aspect of this article is overblown and the article is strictly speculative fear-mongering. We are limited by the imaging technology, the neuroimaging agents, the individual gross variability in neocortical development even given a basic similarity at a single neuron to neuron communication. I am confident the author is referencing PET and/or functional MR imaging of the brain. As with PET, the patient is administered a positron emitted glucose analog and then sequestered from external stimuli for 30 or so minutes while the radionuclide localizes in various concentrations to various areas of the brain. The patient is then imaged.

      Now, problem number one is the limits in spatial resolution of imaging...even at its best, the PET scanner gets down to perhaps 1 cm in terms of resolving power which, to say the least, is not very good. As for the current state of neuroimaging, we have enough trouble trying to identify an epileptic focus or metabolic characteristics of something as gross as Alzheimer's dementia with functional metabolic imaging. Sure, you expose someone to extraneous visual stimuli following the administration of the radionuclide and then image the patient, the occipital cortices are going to light up but in a variable and inconsistent fashion. Now we have variable distribution of radionuclide with great individual variability and with limited spatial resolving capability and we want to discuss the future of identifying a pattern consistent with lying with enough specificity and sensitivity to allow for courtroom admission...a long, long ways away, if ever. Fear mongering article. Something to get the "mind control" and "science junkie" up in arms. It's a media thing.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  15. blah blah

    This is hilarious. Religious people believe that God can hear their thoughts and believe you'll go to hell for thought crimes like lust. Now you want to argue against technology that will allow you to force others to be like you. Not very christian of you.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      blah balh, that is what religious folks were put on this Earth to do silly, entertain us!

      November 13, 2011 at 12:59 am |
  16. hippypoet

    now on the whole government thing using mind reading... of course thats a bad idea – but its impossible to keep that out of the reach of those people with said gifts....who may already work for the government...or anywhere for that matter... its like mutants how they just sometimes suddenly appear but others may have known for a long time... welcome to the new world folks!

    November 12, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      I can read me ten your old's mind. She is thinking about sushi and roller coasters. Where do I sign up for a government gig?

      November 13, 2011 at 12:58 am |
  17. Colin

    Can you imagine the first time they probe the mind of a creationist or fundamentalist. It will be like, "Holy hell, there's nothing in here."

    November 12, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      Colin, there will be something in there....but it won't smell right.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:01 am |

    I totally disagree on mind reading business,if that happens you will lost your privacy and freedom of thoughts.Time will come they will control your thoughts that will be the next move ,we will become like robots.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Anyone who truly believes their book of tribal mythology (such as The Babble) is virtually there already.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:05 am |
    • Passive Aggresive

      You are clearly already a robot, and not a very smart one either. You must have been a proto-type that got lost in a pub.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:02 am |
    • Random

      To late TV watcher.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:31 am |
  19. Colin

    No Christian should worry about this. Compared to what they believe – that their god reads their minds (or “hears their prayers”, if you see any difference) using some kind of magic telepathic powers, and also monitors their thoughts 24-7-365 as part of his ongoing surveillance of them to decide whether he will burn them for ever – this should be child's play.

    November 12, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • Bob

      Hilarious, Colin. 🙂

      November 12, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
    • Passive Aggresive

      Now Colin, that is just not funny. Not one darn bit. Christians spend a LOT of money to get their prayers heard and it is NOT fair to have science just walk in and start doing it without at least sub-contracting with the Lord.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:10 am |
    • Mirosal

      If you can get "god" to sign ANY kind of contract.. let the rest of us know please? We'd all love to see THAT signature!!

      November 13, 2011 at 1:13 am |
    • Passive Aggresive

      That is easy, it looks like this:

      November 13, 2011 at 1:22 am |
    • Mirosal

      Well, hell that's easy to forge!!!! No wonder too many people think they are "god"!! lol

      November 13, 2011 at 1:27 am |
  20. hippypoet

    i believe such things are possible, but I think its something like being good at sports, your just good..while others may try to be as good and maybe even succeed in that, they had to try hard – there are some people that are just good at certain things... I for one when freshly in love, I can "just know" things about my lover... its a feeling followed by an image or scene... Now this is not bullsh!t – its a true story, its the best example i can think of the moment...when my wife and i were first dating, she had a friend who she was very close with and she was torn between me and him, i told her while at a common friends b-day party, she asked him by stating her feelings, he said "I know" then nothing and walked away – she asked him if he has similar feelings he said no. quick type answers too, with a smile on his face – now i was at home, drunk, high, and i took 4 tabs of lsd after finishing off my 6 pack... she asked him according to her at 9:30... all my drugs were consumed by 8, an hour and a half before... so i was full in and i saw the whole thing as if i was sitting at a nearby table...Because i wanted to know about her night when she came over the next day, she said it was nice, then i asked if she asked andrew and right befor she could answer – i said wait, let me tell you, and i did...this was the first time i made it known to her that such things happen to me when i am falling in love – and it just happened to be the most perfect thing to tell her at this moment ... i think she felt used by him.....but this was years ago... now it happens wit my kids, like when they get hurt, lie, that kinda thing... its freakie and sometimes i really do get scared becuase how detailed they always are!


    November 12, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
    • Pet Sounds

      I think that's the LSD working lol.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:12 am |
    • Passive Aggresive

      HP you bogarting SOB, pass the dutchie from the left hand side.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:05 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.