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. Don't Mind

    Remember all mindless people, criminals are always way ahead of law-enforcement technology. By the time scientists could figure out a reliable scanning system, the smarter criminals would develop something much more sophisticated to fool that system, and people would line up miles long to buy that stuff to protect their mind from being read!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • GalaXun

      @Stars and Planets

      You're a cute example of atheists inability to help themselves from pushing their own political agenda of any topic of every article on all blogs.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  2. Autumn

    This is completely preposterous. They have no right whatsoever to tap into anyone's mind! I hope the people who came up with this fall terribly ill! What scoundrels!

    November 13, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Stars-n-Planets

      I hope you are being sarcastic. As in, MRI, what an evil technology; it can't possibly have any benefits in medical diagnostics.

      Not hard to think of technologies that can be used for good or evil.
      But it takes religion to make good people do evil. (S. Weinberg)

      November 13, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • MarshalRight

      Yes, but the Democrats WANT this. They always have wanted this. That's why you can't be a Democrat and an American at the same time.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What a typically stupid comment, Marsh.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  3. virgoptrex

    Humans can never outsmart nature.......EVER!!! So Chillax! Its like comparing CPU computing speed that was developing so fast in early 90s that CPU speed was developing so rapidly that there was an extrapolation by 2019 it would reach the speed of our mind.Come early 2000s (2002-2003) and we hit the upper limit of 3 GHz. To this day we are stuck there after 8-9 years. The scientists have struggled to go past beyond that with Silicon technology. Its not very easy even for the best of the super human minds working on the technology. But no need to PRESS THE PANIC BUTTON!

    November 13, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  4. Pat

    Orwell was right.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • MarshalRight

      The emergence of "Political Correctness", aka newspeak and doublethink, should have been the first things to tell people that Orwell was right. But no matter. I've no problem wearing black overalls.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  5. sha sha

    Stupid mind reading freaky government peeps!
    Now can we use it to cheat at cards? win at gambling? read the dealers mind?
    I smell CORRUPTION Baby!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  6. Dave

    I thought Joe Paterno already could. Over the last week I've seen a lot on TV and online where pedophiles like Sandusky is alleged to be can usually hide it from thier wives, friends and families. But some of the same "experts" claim Joe had to have known everything that was going on, because he is JoePa.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  7. Cliff

    Umm dude? They aren't reading your thoughts. It's no different than a poker player or FBI Agent understanding facial recognition. The art of studying ones facial tendencies and movements to know if someone is lying or telling the truth or scared or bluffing etc. Some people are exceptional at this, so should they be outlawed? lol. It's science and done through imaging which can only be done with concent. Simply alert the person to the risks and move on.

    That said, this nutjob Author has GOT to be some right wing wierdo who thinks all science is the devils tool.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • Ricky L

      You've just got to be lying.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • MarshalRight

      Sorry, babe, all the nutjobs are on the LEFT.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You prove otherwise with every post, Marsh.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  8. Jon

    The first group that should have their thoughts sifted through and then publicized for all to see are our friggin' politicians including the jokes who wind up as presidents. We have a right to know the truth of what they're all about.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  9. MarshalRight

    I'll bet the Obamites are LOVING this idea!

    November 13, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Ricky L

      You can't even read your own mind.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Lee

      I'm really trying to understand what this could possibly have to do with people supporting or not supporting Obama.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Nothing. Marsh just hates Obama and liberal ideals.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  10. Martin H.

    More anti-government scare tactics from the right. Actually, I'm more concerned that Corporate America might be able to read my mind. They're close enough as it is, keeping track of every purchase and mouse click on the internet. Big Brother isn't the problem; Big Business is.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • MarshalRight

      If you had read a history book, or even just paid attention, you would know that it's the Demoncrats who traditionally want more government presence in people's daily life, so this was YOUR idea. There. Now I have decreed the truth and you shall acknowledge it, especially since President UngaBunga is out of a job come 2012.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yeah, right, Marsh. Funny how you think that when it's the right-wingers who want to insert themselves in the lives of women when it comes to reproductive freedom.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  11. Bailey

    Hell, no. My thoughts are private. The government intrudes on our privacy enough, anyway.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • Big Brudder

      Stop thinking like that.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  12. Bill Myers

    The day that everyone can read minds is the day that all friendships end.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • Asgard Eternal

      True Words spoken by a prophet............

      November 13, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  13. jason

    this is ridiculous fear mongering and is not based in fact.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • Corey

      Not at all. There are numerous scientific articles concerning the advancement in this field. We have the ability to read brainwaves and actually create a rough image of what someone is thinking about. With the rapidly advancing pace of technology it will not be more than 5 to 15 years before this is a reality.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  14. Mr. Enter

    thy don't care what you think, or I!

    November 13, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • Mac Dee

      and just who would the government be? Peeping toms?

      November 13, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  15. cronewinter

    The thought police are coming..the progress made by people is turning into a horror story.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  16. Juliana

    When one understands the nature of the mind and the nature of thought, one concludes with certainty that all a human can actually do is read POSSIBILITIES. Our thoughts are possibilities. What we choose to follow is still our choice and ours alone. Of course the human race will evolve toward more telepathic means of communicating – we have evidence of this right now all around us. Moving objects with our thoughts, leaving our bodies during meditation and making predictions about what someone will choose to do. There is nothing to fear. Rest assured you still have and will continue to have the power to freely choose- unless the world is overtaken by another Hitler, in which case death would be a blessing.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Asgard Eternal

      Well said......

      November 13, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      " we have evidence of this right now all around us. Moving objects with our thoughts, leaving our bodies during meditation and making predictions about what someone will choose to do."

      Really...you believe this actually exists? Boy are you gullible. Look if any of that were possible there is a prize of $1,000,000 offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation. A prize that has stood unclaimed since 2004.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • AlternativeWave

      These are not the droids you are looking for....

      November 14, 2011 at 5:09 am |
  17. Cassandra Chu

    Back when everyone was talking about waterboarding as an "advanced intrerrogation technique"... the TRUTH is that inside Gitmo and for every other suspect that needs to be intensively interviewed for security or other reasons (e.g., spies), this TYPE of technology has been used for a long time. Suffocation, for example, can be simulated by the brain along under hypnotism and the right drugs... so in a sense it's seemingly more humane... but the long term effects are devastating. devastating.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  18. Mary

    Our minds are personal as well as other things that are personal and private to us. I think this neuroscience mess is not a really good idea. Just imagine living in a world where you are being monitored all the time, and have no such privacy! This is crazy!

    November 13, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  19. Mac Dee

    The government can read my mind if they want to, i really don't care
    but it will be blank almost 99% of the time.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • The Master

      Spoken like a true american.. sigh...

      November 13, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  20. Conn

    Yes, cnn let's make a big deal outof something that will never happen just to fill up space on this site

    November 13, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • CnnO

      No worries..No brainers are exemted. You now can have a good night sleep.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • CnnO


      November 13, 2011 at 10:00 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.