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. Bill

    If you took a sampling of 100 people and read their minds over a period of 1 week, I'll bet the government could findcause to jail at least 99 of them. The human mind wanders to so many dark places that no one needs to see it.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  2. misleading headline

    I understand that headlines needs to grab readers, but the author should at have at least matched the story to it. The whole article is a mini review of the latest advances in 'mind reading' by neuroscience (and it's very crude by what this article reported). There is not a single interview or reference to some government agency wanting to use mind reading technology at all, yet the headline screams imminent encroachment of our minds by some suits. The only aim of such a headline is to promote paranoia of our government, which is already at record high. The use in a courtroom is mentioned, but so is its potential use in a private company. Dr. Wolpe, does being an trained and practicing ethicist at Emory also entail having a bit of journalistic ethics?

    November 13, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Paul Root Wolpe

      The government is already using lie detection technology, and has been experimenting with fMRI for use in interrogation. I did not write the headline, CNN did. As new technologies emerge, we must decide how to regulate them before they are misused, not after. I do not claim that the government has already used these technologies, just that they shouldn't, and any discerning reader would see that.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      CNN must be desperate for readers.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  3. Patrick

    Seems a bit 'Minority Report', to me.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  4. Jennifer

    If you seriously think that the government is working on the capability to read people's minds, then don't you also think that they can at least figure out how to create jobs?

    C'mon... you idiots will believe anything.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Tim

      There is a difference between fiscal management and military research. The two have nothing to do with each other. Do you not understand how the defense industry functions?

      November 13, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Jennifer

      Yah you're right, government is so large that the left hand doesn't even know what the right hand is ever doing.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • crawbar

      It is well known how to create jobs – have government to get out of the way of job creation. But dems do not like it. They like power. Their brains' direction of thinking is toward socialism even if they denounce it aloud. You cannot change their genes... Well, having said that, if we can read minds, maybe genes changing is not that impossible... Those will be interesting times... Maybe humanity will succeed again... If dems will be on the top of changing genes, we will go down pretty fast...

      November 13, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, please. As if republicans care about creating jobs. What a laugh.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  5. crawbar

    You can prohibit using it by govenrment. You cannot stop, however, the progress in these developments and this kind of "weapon" will appear. It will be exactly as with guns – you will deprive normal citizens from using them, in this case the government to use it for our protection but you will not be able to stop criminal forces from using it.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  6. AnnonUSA

    LOL, to believe this technology exists and will exist and NOT be used by the Government is just stupid. Of course they are going to use it.

    They already intrude into our lives everyday in every means possible.
    How long before you are charged with thinking about a crime?

    November 13, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  7. IPower up

    And if i concentrate hard enough i can move things!

    November 13, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Jennifer

      YAh – Osama bin Laden thought really hard in a cave... and he shook things up, didn't he?

      November 13, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  8. Tim

    Government technology is typically 20 years ahead of civilian technology and knowledge. Don't think for one second this isn't advanced far beyond what this article states.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  9. Product of environment..

    The government can't even make up there own minds never mind looking at anyone else.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • too funny


      November 13, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  10. HeIsGod

    The Ant-Christ is on the rise.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Higgy, you thought it was the anti-Christ when x-rays were first used.


      November 13, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  11. GoogleIt

    Well, at least it won't cost the government much to scan our brains – we'll just get pennies for our thoughts! What, another Post Office in the making?

    November 13, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  12. cepyoung

    People, relax! All this is easily thwarted with a simple tin foil hat, proven effective for years against aliens.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • too funny

      I've got mine ready to go.. nice and pointy too with flashing lights

      November 13, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  13. erich2112x

    You ask me to imagine celery, I'm going to imagine celery, so the machine could actually work. But if you asked me to imagine celery, and as a joke, I imagine an apple. and your machine could actually pick that up, (that I had imagined an apple instead celery), Then you'd have something. Until then, blablablabla....bla.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  14. Its true

    who needs the Government?
    I can read all your minds right here on this web page, everyone of your statements coming out of your minds

    November 13, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • be careful

      That's right and they keep a record

      November 13, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  15. Emerson

    Brain imaging is nothing new. Dr. Daniel G. Amen has been a pioneer in the field for two decades, and I've personally found his work to be life-changing. As a whole, psychiatry/mental health is the only field in medicine that doesn't bother to look at the organ they're treating, which to me, is baffling. Brain imaging, SPECT in particular, may not tell us everything, but it certainly tells us more than we ever knew before.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  16. BillMI

    Fortunately, we are finallly dealing with the subject of collective consciousness. We are not as different as we think we are.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  17. Mrbluiis

    I'm a psychic. I don't want the thoughts and ideas that I receive from others to be misconstrued as my own.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • whatever

      Well played sir.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  18. Hamoodi

    Man this should not even be in consideration! The government has too much power. The government should fear its people, not the other way around.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  19. Adam H

    If this technology were available, all it would take is another 911 type incident, and you can be sure that the government would immediately use it. China would have it installed the next day after it was invented.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  20. Charles

    I agree that the brain should be off-limits, though I cannot imagine that it will stay that way.
    Once a technology has been created, the continual pressure from those (typically government) who seek to protect something is too great over time to resist (as in the FBI doing profiling, the CIA doing broad internet monitoring, etc.)

    And, the technology IS beginning to be there. Here is an article from ABC news about researchers who are able to (albeit fuzzily) reconstruct a video of what is occurring in subjects brains:

    Simply roll that technology forward in time by ten years and you'll see the outcome (and your imagining of it will show up on this little screen here...)

    Man's heart cannot resist the temptation of this technology.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:26 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.