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. Uno

    Now if the scientists can take it one step further and weaponize the brain

    November 13, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  2. DAVID

    Go ahead and try to read it,
    here I will read it for you...
    I refuse to take off my shoes to get on an air plane,
    and no man attempts a pat down of my family without undergoing a citizens arrest by me.

    Deal with it.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Big Brudder

      Yeah, right, tough guy. Now bend over again. We'll need to continue the probing.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Sez the guy who never travels anywhere that is beyond the scope of a car ride in a '98 Chevy.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  3. Seriously, people

    Does anyone really think this means mind-reading government satellites picking up on your every subversive thought?

    November 13, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  4. ConcernedNetizen

    Read minds? I thought that's why the government does "trending" on Facebook and Twitter? They don't need to me in your mind, they are already in your keyboard.

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

    Anyone care to notice that this opinion appeared in the BELIEF blog and not the science page. Yes neuroscientists know the functions of various parts of the brain but you must be very ignorant to think that there is an universal language encoded on the neocortex that the "evil government" can read!?! This opinion piece is blatant fear mongering targeted at the paranoid far right. If you have a doubt, read the comments above.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • ConcernedNetizen

      I agree this articles purpose is probably fear mongering. Reading someone's mind is not something the government has any place in. I disagree, in that i believe there probably IS A UNIVERSAL building block language in the brain. It can more than likely be cracked with an appropriately designed Digital Signal Processor, and a continuous stream of meta-data symbols (matrix, anyone?) can be sent to a program for interpretation. Beware any further extensions of this governments oversight. In its waning years, governments do strange things..

      November 13, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Skeptic

      For paranoia, see above.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • For the sake of HITS

      It's because, it's the place where most religionists and atheists hang-out. The author was hoping that one side couldn't hold themselves and push their own political agenda and turn this into a circus.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  6. Dewayne A

    most of the "left" aren't thinking anyway... so if they scan conservatives brains, they might actually learn something... they might actually see "order" instead of the complete chaos they saw with the liberals...

    Hitler would have love love loved this technology. with it, he would have successfully exterminated the Jews... people soon forget history, and every generation produces a leader that loves to destroy...

    November 13, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Steve

      To be totally honest, both extremes have their positives and their negatives. I find the most simple are those that ascribe to an extreme, be it the far left or the far right. But as for your assertion...the left might be a lot of things, but historically speaking, they are the educated and the intellectual whereas the right are more often the simple. You might wish to approach your agenda from another angle as it seems inherently flawed.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Dewayne A

      most people forget that the NAZI party was the national socialist party... how soon we forget that he used propaganda and went after corporate germany, but later when he broke them down (made them less powerful) as he rose to power, he then "courted" them because he needed their support. it's important to understand his strategy... divide and conquer...

      don't fall asleep... many intellectuals have absolutely no common sense about them... I've seen many who still believe their wives are faithful... "body lanquage" .. something you just can't read in a book my friend...

      November 13, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Dewayne A

      steve... you made a good point, and all people have different gifts... but some things just can't be learned in a book... we'll see where we are in 20 years and you can blame it on the far right if you like...

      November 13, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Steve

      No, Dewayne...I won't blame it on the far right. I will blame it on extremists from both the far right and the far left. The most flawed logic almost unequivocally comes from extremes. You know the adage, the truth lies somewhere in between? Same here...the middle gets the best balance of intellect AND common sense.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Dewayne A

      Steve. I agree. One thing will always be true of both extremes and the middle. Corruption and abitious thirst for power permeates from the far left to the far right. The corrupt and strong will step on anyone to get what they want. Most people don't think for themselves in this generation, and with video games, facebook and all the other things that get our attention, and the number is getting less and less every day.

      A time is coming when you'd be amazed what people will do for a loaf of bread. I am not looking forward to that time.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  7. Hello Mcfly

    Helllllllo anyone in there? hollow tapping sound and fuzzy pictures.......

    November 13, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  8. Devin Gray MD

    This type of brain scanning began as a way to help people who had suffered neurological injury to communicate. DNA technology began as a quest in the "mystery of life". The man who created TNT was horrifed to see it used in war. I do worry that technological development may be misused, because history shows that we use new developments for things other than their initial purpose. I don't believe that the answer is to stop scientific research. I believe the right answer is to recommit ourselves to the principles that this country was founded upon. In my honest opinion, I do not believe that the government should be allowed to touch our bodies in any way without our permission. The slope is very slippery when you start to make exceptions based on presumed guilt of some crime.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Charge Nurse Betty

      So we should be able to refuse DNA tests, and lie detector tests, and ETOH tests for drunk driving ?

      November 13, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • ConcernedNetizen

      @charge nurse betty: I am glad you got absolutely nothing useful from all this. Testing for drugs and alcohol consumption is not the same at all as pre-emptively reading someone's thoughts... or "trending" that national twitter feeds (which is the more realistic form of thought reading). You should be assigned to the "Pre-Crime" unit in "minority report". Then you can arrest people for driving to a bar, knowing they will get drunk and have to drive home. (that always bothered me as to why bars are required to have same parking space requirements as retail. Are we to assume we need parking spaces for all our drunk driving consumers?)

      November 13, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  9. portland tony

    Many an eyewitness will tell you in all honestly what they believe they saw. When their perception is proven wrong by science or evidence, they still believe what happened is as they described from memory. So reading minds is not something that's going to save or destroy the world because those stored "fact are just stored perceptions

    November 13, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  10. Big Brother

    They already have your Facebook account why not just give up your mind as well...(eerie music playing)

    November 13, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  11. toxic zebra

    It goes both ways, the masons and templars have the same universal back door key into government offices. Technology supposed to be in a church – hijacked by all of the worst, for the worst; drug enforcement.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  12. erich2112x

    A person's thoughts are written in their facial expressions, sometimes buried there. Just ask poker players, salespeople, actors, teachers...and yes con men.- folks who study these things. Never will there ever be a way to actually read a mind because we don't think in words.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  13. brightstar20

    Bottom line: imaging technology is far too primitive and unfortunately overrated. A pretty picture is not going to cut it.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  14. Mark Wells

    The Patriot Act gives the federal government the legal authority to demand your search history from Google and other search engines without a warrant or subpeana. This is very much like reading your mind and far more accurate than PET scans or fMRIs. It's also an immediate threat, there is no guessing about what they might be able to do in 5 years. If you are a Patriot, tell your representative to vote no to the next extension of the Patriot Act.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  15. Whacha

    The Government will see that there are a lot of lights on....but no one is home

    November 13, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  16. whight_knight

    Government ever tries to force that form of crap on people there will be a large uprising and war..but then again I think we should declare war on our "government" anyways for all the illegal things they are involved in!! Revolt!!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • KNIGHeighT

      That would definitely a lonesome endeavour for you.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • grey

      The lone traitor.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  17. Michael

    It would be counter-productive when it involved members of the tea party. Like Gertrude Steiin said about Oakland: "There is no there there!"

    November 13, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • teaparty

      The only thing they would read on your mind would "hate the tea party" – along with reading your mind they will also be able to write and give you thoughts – except they already do that and you are living proof of it!

      November 13, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  18. Annatala

    I agree with the speaker on everything except the degree to which technology has advanced or will advance in the foreseeable future. I can assure you that mind-reading technology is not currently in the realm of feasibility. The researchers in question were looking for general patterns of neural activity. Detailed thoughts are exceedingly complex, spread throughout different parts of the brain (rather than being in one area like the example) and cannot be derived from any level of brain scan, let alone a simple one.

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

      Tip-off phrases that the writer doesn't have enough depth of knowledge to really support what they are saying:
      "I can assure you that ..."
      "Trust me..."

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

      I have degrees in both psychology and computer science engineering, so I do in fact know what I'm talking about (plus I've been involved in brain scans had a few scans and an EEG myself, and over 400 hours of psychometric testing experience), but feel free to put that tin foil hat on, "Stars-n-Planets".

      November 13, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  19. Oh Ma God!

    What shall we do? I know!!!!!!
    Tin foil everyone, Tin Foil on the head

    November 13, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • God of Mine

      You have to do nothin. It only for those brains are working. You can sit back and relax.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  20. Oh please

    Noting that motor areas of the brain light up when someone dreams of movement is NOT reading one's dreams for content. Get a grip.

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

      no u first

      November 13, 2011 at 10:20 am |
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About this blog

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.