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. David

    I work in the imaging field and I can guarantee you that scientists cannot "read minds" or do anything even close to it. Basically scientists look at areas of the brain that are active when a certain action or thought is repeated. The signal from the averages are extremely small (~1-2%) so multiple averages are needed. This of course requires that the subject is cooperative and thinking about the same thing each time. Furthermore, the resolution of an fMRI image is very poor, on the order of 2-3mm voxels. It's pretty hard to actually distinguish between different words people are thinking of. It is more used to differentiate different areas of the brain; for example motion of the hand vs motion of the foot which is located in significantly far away from each other that they fall in different voxels. And everyone's brain is clearly different. Brain structures are offset by several mm to cm with respect to different people. How can a scientist pick out what a voxel means if they don't know what part of the brain its coming from?
    Basically don't listen to this poorly informed journalist who is clearly trying to incite panic.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Thanks for this post. I agree–Wolpe could and should focus on the here-and-now ethical issues in this country.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  2. Qularkono

    one more very good reason to keep the federal government small, cut their revenue (taxes), and quit asking them to do everything for us.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • arthurrrrr

      First, no they cant read your mind. Second, most people dont even think anymore. Third, the government is in the business of TELLING YOU what to think already. They have been doing this for years and most people follow blindly.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  3. jon

    I'd tell you my thoughts on all this, but the government already knows.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  4. Cheryl Carter

    Why not? It's just one step away from invading our wombs.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  5. thegadfly

    They can already read your mind. It's called data mining.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  6. cepyoung

    I could probably go to prison in 47 states for what I'm thinking right now. Hubba, hubba!!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Big Brudder

      We're on our way. Prepare to meet Bubba.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  7. crawbar

    There is no need to read libs minds – we know what they are thinking about and are fighting them as much as we can but with not much of the success – too many of them and they elect Obumbas and pull the country toward socialism, i.e. catastrophy.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Must be just terrible for you. Poor thing, to have no mind to read.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Andacar


      November 13, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  8. Dr. Zeuss

    But if we think really hard, maybe we can stop our brains...


    (apologies to Neil Young for me twisting his words)

    November 13, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  9. Dylan

    This reminds me of 1984's thought police and those who read the book knows where government having access to everyones minds leads to. It can do some good however people are unable to handle such a big responsibility without distorting it for their own gains

    November 13, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Big Brudder

      That's the right way to think. The technology should be in the safe hands of our trusted protectors -the government. They'll keep us safe from harmful thoughts. See, they just did.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  10. Mark

    This technology has been here since the early 70's. The posterior occipital part of the brain operates on a 6-14 hertz frequency.
    Computors such as the Cray(which is obsolete) was doing this for decades.
    Not only can the mind be read but people can be connected to other people thur their brain waves.
    Hope you all have strong minds- minds that aren't influenced by others. Stay away from drugs- this includes beer, wine ect.
    You're more easily under the influence of someone else when you under the influence of drugs!
    How many of you hate those red light cameras??? With the brain barrier being broken- we all are walking cameras- thur our

    November 13, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • kevin

      what the hell are you talking about, your an idiot.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Andacar

      There you are Mr. Mark! I told you not to go near that computer, you know what it does to your nerves! Now you march right back into your nice little padded cell and take your thorazine this instant!

      November 13, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  11. Oh No

    I just wasted an hour that ill never get back reading everyone's thoughts about this story..goodbye

    November 13, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  12. VegasRage

    Finally men will be able to understand women!

    November 13, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  13. kevin

    The 1st decent thing ever written in the belief blog.

    1 for 1,000,000, but nice work Dr. Wolpe

    November 13, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  14. Sam

    Once they figure out how to read people's minds, they are not going to like what they find.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  15. theoldadam

    My mind would be a short read.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  16. zoundsman

    Har har har- Big deal. My wife has been reading my mind, and using thought control for 30 years.

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


    November 13, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • kevin

      think what you want, but you obviously haven't been keeping up with the science.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • kevin

      It's also hilarious that a lot of these skeptical commentors simultaneously believe that a son of a virgin inhabits the sky and can read your thoughts and grant you wishes.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  18. Chris

    I want the ability to record my dreams and watch them on my tablet the next morning. It would be very insightful.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Jason

      Now that would be awsome!!

      November 13, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  19. Joe

    If they can read our minds, we will need to be able to read theirs. No more government secrets might be a good thing.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  20. geekinit

    On second thought maybe this technology could tell me why I have a huge headache right now.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:41 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.