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. dsptchr645

    Oh! If they could read my mind, they would be unhappy!

    November 13, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  2. Passive Aggresive

    Comment 530

    November 13, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  3. matt

    this article is getting a tad ahead of itself, we are not at a place where we can read people's minds at such complexity just yet, and reliability would need massive testing before it could ever make its way into courts obviously... We'd be talking about a minority report type situation almost, judged by the blurry way we think. Just a thought doesn't prove intention.

    In a more immediate sense this technology could be very very useful though – psychological diagnosis, terrorist interrogation instead of the horrid means currently being used, allowing patients with locked in syndrome to find new ways to communicate, or to discover the working capacity of brain damaged individuals. We don't want to back away from funding this new type of research, but as always we should be careful and aware of the steps we take as we make them.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  4. Jake

    This article is perfect example of sensationalist journalism based on illogical extrapolation. It's one thing for neuro-technology to distinguish whether someone is thinking of an apple or a grizzly bear when those are the only two "a" or "b" choices. The apple will light up "hunger" spots in the brain, and the bear will light up "fear" or "curiosity" or some other section. Fairly course analysis is sufficient. It's entirely another thing to determine complex thought which in any period of time, will involve innumerable variables that that even the most granular and sophisticated scientific model could not interpret, let alone predict. there's a reason this article in the religion blog – it's based on fantasy rather than reality.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • 17701774

      Not necessarily. Had you told someone 150 yrs. ago about the technologies we have today, you probably would have been locked in a nuthouse. It was incomprehendable. Considering how the rate technology is progressing at is increasing- due to other technologies speeding it up- while it may be a conspiracy theory today, this may be something scientists will be able to do eventually. Discussing the ethics of it now may be irrelevant to today, but these discussions will still be interesting for people to look back on in a century or so, when the perspective is different.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  5. Chris Johnson

    "The ability to read our thoughts threatens the last absolute bastion of privacy that we have."
    It is too late to consider our final bastions of privacy as being untouched. We are barraged by thousands of messages every week be it from commercials or news sources and marketers that already know what we want. In this way the marketers have nearly beaten modern neuroscience to the chase.

    Studies like this excite me. How amazing would it be if there were never innocent people executed or unduly incarcerated (under our very imperfect justice system)?
    "My mind must remain mine alone"
    The same thing could be said by users of euphoriant drugs, who would prefer to be able to have control over their state of consciousness. They have a justifiable desire, but will the government grant them freedom in this way? Most likely not.

    I feel like this article promotes a little too much fear of this new field, and a little less understanding.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  6. Elmo

    So big question for you Dr. Wolpe. Why does a person in a position of authority supposedly expert enough to write a column for a major news outlet warn the masses away from the truth or the detection of truth? What do you have to fear? I will show you mine if you show me yours. Don't you remember me from childhood? Have you been hanging out with the adults so long that you forgot the game or have you changed the rules and made up a new game? An Adult game that if everyone knew the truth wouldn't have a leg to stand on and no one would play anymore. Come back to the play ground Dr Wolpe . Take us with a grain of salt because we have the discretion of a 4 year old but we play the old game called the truth. So from the top your ugly and stink so you will be picked last when we divy up teams. Your other friend, he wont be picked for the team because we are going to play ball and he is fat and slow. We like to win , sorry the truth hurts. Is this the point you are trying to make?

    November 13, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  7. Sigh

    I can't believe this tripe. It is grossly unprofessional of CNN to allow this on their site. The author has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. I'm not going into details except to say that we should let the neuroscientists tell us what their research goals and outcomes are, no some jack-ass with a worthless PhD in ethics to misrepresent the implications of the research and write some alarmist BS.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • conspiracysrus

      CNN has gone to the dogs lately. I don't know if there is a management change or what but, this religious right stuff is just a bunch of lies and fear. I am pretty much done with CNN. I am on to the English or middle east papers. At least you get some actual reporting rather than mind control – as opposed to mind reading – hahaha, that was a little funny, not much.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  8. Passive Aggresive

    Post 518
    What is important is that we keep posting on these blogs.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  9. jefflazrn

    This is as much voodoo as a, so called, lie detector test.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  10. AndyG

    I agree with matt. This is many many years away and we have much bigger things to think about right now. More of CNN trying to distract us from what's rally important.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  11. jERRY

    If this device was developed, we would have to fire everyone in Government. You can rest easy. IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Elmo

      Well isnt that the truth no machine required.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  12. Daniel M.

    Got Totalitarianism?

    November 13, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  13. phil

    only GOD can read minds

    November 13, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • IceT

      LOL .. I loved that one too !

      November 13, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Martin

      fitting for the ultimate sadistic tyrant LOL

      November 13, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  14. nimbuswolf

    Yeah i find this subject really funny....our government is in our email and phone calls, they watch where we go and what we do and how we spend our money. Now they want to read our minds! Whats funny is when you want to read their emails...you want to listen into their phone calls...you want to watch what they do and how they spend the tax payers money...They buck and fight and come up with lots of reasons not to let the public into their secrets! Sure create a mind reading machine~ Then maybe we can use it to find a really good leader who wants to help the people instead of trying to destroy them!

    November 13, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  15. Jakibro

    Imagine a world where there are no political lies or criminals getting away with murder, theft, etc... Innocent people not railroaded for crimes they didn't commit. Humans can finally advance their species and focus on what is needed.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • ja

      That might be possible in countries like Sweden but definitely not in the US. The powers that be wouldn't let it happen if not to their advantage.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  16. Larry

    Is this what the DHS and CIA is spending their billion dollar budgets on while Congress debates cutting SS benefits?

    November 13, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  17. Religious sects

    This is as much about "reading" your thoughts as it is "controlling" your thoughts. If there is any organization we should fear having that power it's the religion industry!

    November 13, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Martin


      November 13, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  18. IceT

    "... keep my innermost thoughts safe from the prying eyes of the state, the military or my employer." To compare your "at will" employer with the Gov. or military?! Wow, nothing like trying to demonize people who provide employment.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  19. Jean

    So it should be possible to see how long after apparent death the brain continues to work. This is something I'd like to know.

    Otherwise, no: no one should be able to access our thoughts!

    I guess it would be part of airport screening. But the word "bomb" would be in all our brains, wouldn't it, as we went through?

    November 13, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Jake

      Hate to disappoint you, but when people are brain-dead, there are no more thoughts. Analyzing brain waves requires humans to not be brain-dead. When you die, your thoughts do unless something magical happens. Unfortunately, these brain charts don't analyze magic.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  20. matt

    This article is complete and utter garbage. First, no one can read minds. That's just science fiction. Putting that as the headline is just sensationalism that I would expect better from a CNN blog. Second, why is this a religion blog issue? I mean come on. Waste of time.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • IceT

      I wonder why this is in the belief blog too!? All I can come up with is that since people are under the misconception that religion has anything to do with ethics they're under some sort of mind control.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Martin

      religion has been the main mind control tool used by humanity.
      CNN needs a REASON blog

      November 13, 2011 at 11:44 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28
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.