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. Eh.

    I couldn't care less. I have nothing to hide.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  2. crawbar

    One of them said:"Oh, please. As if republicans care about creating jobs. What a laugh."

    This statement demonstrates a complete collapse of the liberals' brains.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • LJTurner

      Your comment merely shows a complete collapse of any intelligent brain cells, period.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      craw, you are hardly a judge, having no brain yourself.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Boneheads like crawfish think that liberals are to blame for everything and that the repubs actually give a ripe fig about creating jobs. No politician running cares about you or your stupid life, you ninny. He/she cares about getting elected. That's all.

      If he/she can create a controversy about any issue that gets your panties in a wad so you'll participate in knee-jerk response by voting for him/her, that's what he/she will do-doesn't matter if it's jobs, mind-control, or abortion.

      You're just too dim to catch on, crawboob.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  3. actual_neuroscientist

    I work on some of the research being discussed in this article. While it is possible for researchers to measure brain activity under very specific experimental paradigms, noone has the ability to "read minds". It is not possible to stick someone in an fMRI and magically have their thoughts appear on a monitor. Individuals such as Dr. Wolpe who don't understand what is actually happening in this line of research should stop instilling a needless fear of neuroscience in the public.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • lautca

      That is not what Dr. Wolpe is saying.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • David

      Dr Wolple probably read 1 abstract on neuroimaging and imagined possibilities without truly understanding the science behind the technology. He clearly does not understand the limitations for the technologies or his article would have an entirely different tune.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  4. Ram

    False positives are an under-appreciated problem with this or any other screening method. If we as a society remember that these provide solid evidence for a defense, but essentially no support to a prosecution, we'll do okay.

    The basic problem is that the vast majority of people aren't doing anything wrong.

    Say you have a method that's 99.9% accurate. That is, suppose the method when used on a murderer will say that they did it 99.9% of the time, and when used on an innocent person will say that they didn't do it 99.9% of the time.

    With 7 billion people in the world, there are 7 million people who would give a false positive, and only one person that's truly guilty. So a "guilty" verdict from the machine would have a 1 in 7 million chance of correctly identifying the murderer. A "not guilty" ruling from the machine by contrast has a 999/1000 chance of being correct.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  5. zulu

    Not only government should be able to read our minds but also should offer nationwide enema services for rich and poor. Every DMV, every social security office and every police station should allocate resources for such important service.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  6. IceT

    Why is this in the Belief Blog?

    November 13, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  7. VikasD

    I am in the neuroimaing "business" so let me say a couple of things.

    We are no where close to "mind reading". Your inaccessible, private thoughts cannot be accessed, "by the government" or by anyone else. And it is not a matter of incremental improvement over existing methods. What is done in these experiments is to show you a predetermined small set of words or pictures, and you can tell, with accuracy slightly above chance, which one of the words _in that set_ was being seen at a given time. Even that is very poor, because the method cannot pick out one out of 50 words, it picks out one out of two words that are withheld. So the chance is 50%, and the program gets 55%-60% right in picking one out of two possible choices. The CMU experiment has other weaknesses that I will not go into. Suffice to say that it is extremely weak.

    Other methods (eg reconstructing a movie) are also very weak, and work badly only for low-level perceptual stimuli. The cognitive or "thinking" part is nowhere close to being decoded which would be needed to detect your thoughts. There is a huge gulf between the visual area V1 and "thoughts". It is NOT a matter of "rolling the technology forward 10 years".

    There is no need to worry right now about anyone detecting your thoughts. This is like people in the 1960s being worried about how to handle accidents between flying cards in the 2000s.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • LJTurner

      Thank you for your post. I found this article difficult to believe. After all, if someone tells you to think of an elephant, you're more than likely to visualize an elephant. It doesn't matter whether you've seen one recently or not. If you're involved in a crime investigation, there a good possibly you will be thinking about the crime whether you had anything to do with it or not. I don't see how this equates to "reading someone's mind". For a complete interpretation they would also need to figure out how to "read" the emotional content connected to that thought, etc., etc. The human being is NOT a computer and I doubt very much that this sort of science will ever be useful in criminal investigations or some such thing. Fascinating stuff, truly worth investigating, but just because I'm "recalling" a crime scene doesn't mean I was there. I may have just read about it in the paper. I may be nervous thinking about it because I'm afraid they may read it in my brain waves and suspect me. A good lawyer would have any of this stuff thrown out as evidence in court, period.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  8. Interplexer

    If we plan on becoming "more than Human" this is just a small addition to what is to come. Check out all the newest technologies, and you will find it all looks like Sci-fi stuff. Just like Computers were the sci-fi stuff 60 years ago. It will all come to pass if we don't blow-up each other.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  9. abtime

    There are people who have the capability to read your thoughts. Only you have the ability to control your thoughts. This "new technology" will be used in whatever way the powers that be choose to use it. Over the past 10 -15 years the "Privacy Act" has proven that. The same people who were frightened into allowing that act to be passed will allow this to be done as well. You have the ability to shut your mind down and allow no thoughts. Don't fear the technology, control your own mind.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  10. John

    Make it mandatory for all politicians to have this done when campaigning.
    We want the truth, not the bunch of lies we keep getting fed. This would clean up Washington.
    If they were the first subjected to this technology, if would be banned.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  11. Michele

    Just like that old Tom Cruise movie with the "mind police" stopping crimes before they are committed. Don't even think about killing your spouse, lol.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • IceT

      That movie wasn't about reading your mind .. it was seeing crimes that will happen in the future.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  12. Rod C. Venger

    For a few years now I've been able to totally stop my thoughts as a way to get to sleep. I literally just go blank. If that fails, and it sometimes does if I'm stressed, I just listen to my heartbeat. They can't read what isn't being written and they can't force me to think, so good luck to them.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  13. Dr. C.

    Nuclear medicine cannot read thoughts. This is BS. It measures regional cerebral blood flow, glucose metabolism and in the case of fMRI blood oxygen level dependence. Not thoughts. Also, I have a really nice bridge for sale. Just let me know, 100k and it's yours. We also used to be monkeys, even though there still are monkeys and no causal mechanism has been found. Oh and finally, Obama is doing a good job. Hopefully, the frontal lobe is working here and you can understand when one is being sardonic.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  14. yuppypoet

    this wont apply to the top 1% right? ok good

    November 13, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  15. Reality

    I was Bred, Born and Brainwashed in Catholicism. After much reading, I am now an agnostic. What would the brain scan find? Some of each making a brain scan useless.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  16. Independent Conservative

    Oh Chickadee, Chickadee, the sky is falling!

    A little learning here is definitely a dangerous thing–for the God Doctor here. Yes, there have been magnificent advances in our understanding of the function of the human brain, more in the last 40 years than in the whole history of human understanding. But the neuroscience being presented here is so distorted through such a simple-minded reaction that it is not worth the electrons that it is pixelated on.

    A good mentalist–those who earn their living as entertainers like Derren Brown–have for a long time done a better job at "reading your thoughts" than the best current neuro-imaging machines, whose purpose is something quite different, by the way. But this is no place for a lecture on science. Just say your prayers and rest easy, for the old song is still (mostly) true.
    Die Gedanken sind immer frei!

    November 13, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Can't happen

      the Government or anyone else does not and will never have the ability to read minds though technology can make you think they can, truth is they can't, nor will ever be and thank G-d for that, because some of those politicians out there have filthy minds, yuck.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Cynthia Williams

      I can tell you as for myself people really dont want to know what I am thinking most of the time. Would we be subject to being put in jail for some of the thoughts we think .If people act on them. What would this even be used for? Too many questions on this subject.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  17. RD Schrecengost

    Yes, develop this technology and read the minds of all government officials, past and present, the 1%, all DA's and prosecutors, and all those in prison. On second thought, read everyone's mind, and we'll then see who telling the truth [or not] about all things considered. LOL!

    November 13, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  18. blair

    men will get slapped in the face every 10 seconds.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Marijuana

      Slapped? More like arrested.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  19. Sam Daughtry

    Any government that attempts to use this technology may be in for some self-inflicted shock therapy. Any use of this “mind reading” technology will immediately be a court challenge, especially in the US. Who is to say that the person being scanned would not want, in the act of balance and fairness, require victims or perhaps even officers to undergo the same brain scan? Law enforcement officers already are required to submit to polygraph exams for pre-employment. However polygraphs are never used afterwards. In fact polygraphs are not admissible in our court system. To allow brain scanning would also pose a threat to the requirement of the right to silence. You didn’t say it, your brain did. Lastly this technology would be horrible if landed in the wrong hands. Could you imagine a foreign country capturing an operative and using this against them? In essence this is a new time bomb in the making that parallels the creation of fission that was eventually used as an atom bomb.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  20. hippypoet

    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 13, 2011 at 10:57 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.