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. sybaris

    This story reads like those ultra-conservative email chain letters my religious elderly parents get so worked up about.

    There is a pervasive thread running through those emails and stories like this and it is that ignorance breeds fear. The most ignorant being the religious who possess child-like trust in whatever they're told. Dr. Wolpe's credentials don't inherently bestow understanding of the technology nor discernment in disseminating allegedly relevant information. Regardless, if it sounds sensational then you'll attract a measurable audience.

    I'll wager Dr. Wolpe has a book on standby or is need of funding for his ethics dept.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:30 pm |

    JW – true that! But that would be assuming that I'm assuming that I know the mind of God which, would be incorrect. I'm just trusting that what I have been given to know, concerning Him, through the Bible, is what he intended me to know in the first place which, within the confines of what I know, versus the infinite, which he already knows, has my best interest in mind.

    Now, as to "Just curious about one of your assumptions–how do you know your God doesn't want you to be boring? Maybe his idea of boring isn't the same as yours?" Maybe he does want me to be boring – just as he wanted Pharoah in Egypt to harden his heart, so that against such thick-headedness he could use Moses to do what he did. You bring up a good point JW. One of my favorite scriptures happens to be Psalm 46:10 – "Be still and know that I am God, I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth."

    The freedom of the children of God is that they needn't worry whether God will be soveriegn – but that he already is and, if he has chosen to see to it that I'd be boring, as I guess much of anything that I'd have to share on this matter may seem to many who do not believe, than so be it.

    In God's great painting of life why should I worry whether he chooses to use me as bland background amidst the sparks and splatters of brilliance in my midst when, in eternity, I will eventually come to know him as he knows me – I have faith that whether brilliantly defined or dull and receding, my life in this present realm will not define my life eternal – to which I am calmed for its reassurance.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  3. Dreamer96

    In a way you're already to late to keep government out of mind-reading....The government has been examining our population for those with unique abilities for over a hundred years now...or even more.....The military identifies unusual soldiers, and what unique abilities they have, and would put them to good, effective use.....Like those few that could see equally well in the pitch dark of night, as in the daytime.....People with a real born-in natural human night vision, were given special jobs in the military.....Ones that would survive missions that they should never have survived, seemly knowing where the enemy was, and how to avoid capture, or how to attack positions, that seemed impossibile to attack...Alexander the Great was one that claimed to fight battles first in his head, then only after he had seen how to win would he engage in battle........learn your history....

    November 13, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  4. New World Order

    Welcome to the New World Order.... People that don't know what that is needs to understand that our world is run by criminals at the top not governments. Government Media and Banks are controlled by these groups. The same groups funding and pushing this technology forward to yet again take away more rights from individuals. Have u noticed how many rights we have lost over the past 10 years? Study the Nazi party and how they slowly and methodically took away their citizens rights over a span of several years. Now look at where the US is going. Will it get to that point someday?

    Do you think the Jews and Victims knew that they got to that point when they were facing a wall and a stormtropper standing behind them with a gun to their head? Stand up for your privacy and rights as an individual so we never revisit this ever again.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Hans Gruber

      You are CORRECT....unfortunately by the comments of others here.. there are too many sheep, fools , and children that would let this happen

      November 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • JA

      Im afraid you are right, my friend

      November 13, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Drake


      November 13, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  5. Levi in Denver

    Why is this even an article?? The answer is NO! NO! NO! NO! No body has that right.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • New World Order

      Because the Media is training the masses and conditioning us to think this is ok. Wake up people research The New World Order in Google along with the Rothchilds. This will open your eyes to how the world really works. Media is an extension of the New World Order they are the mouth piece to spread their religion of death and destruction around the world. The calling for war after war and the destruction of your Liberty by making articles like this one to make it seem like thats the way it's going to be. Just like going to the airport and getting molested before u get on a plane. It's not for safety they are hearding people into thinking it is right and conditioning us all from the young middle age and elderly. It is completely wrong. Wake up and understand the underlying cause of these stories and these systems being put into place to take your rights away. Oh yeah another thing. Next time you come to an intersection did u ever wonder why they need 8 cameras pointing every which direction? Why so many cameras what are they preparing for? Marshall Law....

      November 13, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  6. Mike

    I assume that some day there will be a reliable way to use brain scans as lie detectors.

    What will civil libertarians say when a condemned criminal wants a witness interrogated under a lie detection protocol. In many cases, the death penalty is based on other people's actions or intentions, so the prisoner's testimony is not enough. Should third parties be lie detected against their will.

    In some cases, an appeal is based on evidence that may or may not have been known to the prosecutors before the trial. Should the ADA take a lie detector test on when he knew about evidence?

    Finally, today's juries generally do not hold a fifth amendment refusal to testify against a defendant. But juries are aware that such testimony is merely evidence, not absolute proof. Will that still work when an innocent defendant can completely exonerate himself by taking the test? I can visualize a liberal Supreme Court ruling that every defendant's lie detector testimony must always be inadmissible because it would eviscerate the fifth amendment for all defendants.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  7. xeno

    I'm more concerned about corporations getting ahold of the capacity to "neuro market" than I am concerned about the government reading our thoughts. Neuro marketing would require much more general knowledge of people's thoughts, and is thus more relevant to the near future. As far as reading minds, human thought is complex, and the more complex the thought, the more areas of the brain become activated. As people learn, those complex thoughts move around, so beyond id based thoughts, I think we'll have melted the earth before they get to it.

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

      CNN is doing that right now through the use of blogs. We voluntarily give our anonymous (but they know our info) thoughts on any subject they choose to put on their site. This helps them market their version of the news based on web hits / comments generated.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  8. Patrick

    Absolutely the government should be able to read minds. That's the most effective way to manage a one world government. Millions of terrorists have to be weeded out so that the illumanati can enjoy what's rightfully theirs.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  9. CraigHolm

    I don't doubt that mind reading technology will be upon us soon – very soon. There's been a lot of work in recent years in brain research. A very crude implementation of some of this research is Mattel's MindFlex game (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8STHiP7HZY). I've played around with the idea myself in a novel I'm currently working on. In the story cell phones have evolved into implantable devices, providing the user with an artificial form of telepathy. The "mind phones" are so popular that they've become practically indispensable – like computers and cell phones are today. The dark side of this technology: How does the user know when his phone is really turned off?

    November 13, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  10. palintwit

    Can you imagine reading Sarah Palin's mind ? It would sound like a bag of marbles in a blender !!

    November 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • bmj

      Yours would be a like a pea in a warehouse.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • palintwit

      bmj... you're just angry like all the other baggers that believed that SP would actually run for president. She just wanted you to buy her books and send her money. Face it. You were duped.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  11. TraumaRN

    Uh-oh. The government reading minds? Thanks guys, now every mentally ill person that reads this will be hiding in dumpsters drinking wine with tin foil wrapped on their heads. I'll take it from here.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Hans Gruber

      The author is not saying today. But in 50 years -yes... but hey I do not think that you would have had the wisdom to stop nuclear fission research in the 1920s

      November 13, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  12. Kerry

    'Minority Report' didn't work for law enforcement for obvious reasons and this would not either. Even a lie detector test if not infallible, one can beat it with control or fail it for the opposite reason. There might be some uses for this on a volunteer basis. However, most people do not want their fantasies to become reality or to even share them with others. Otherwise we might all be incarcerated.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  13. Hans Gruber

    Actually, the author is right. The tech is being researched by DARPA the government military weapons research organization. If is not stopped now while is in its infancy then when is further along and seems "useful" the political, and military forces would not let the project die. People who think this project is worth while are extremely naive or participants just like in the 1940 Germany. Boycott any scientist that is involved in research.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Ney

      I agree that we must draw a line somewhere, yet today I am thinking of Baby Lisa and countless other crimes which focus on the weak and defenseless. What if we could use this technology to solve cold cases also, find lost children and loved ones. If I am not guilty I should have nothing to fear.
      I do believe however that regulation and protocol will be a huge problem. It is not the science, but how we use it that is the issue- and of course the poor and minority will always be a focus. Laws are made for the poor. However, right now, I would love for the FBI to scan Baby Lisa's mother and father. I pray that baby is still alive and well, but that's a long shot.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • CraigHolm

      Despite popular thinking, one cannot stop technological research simply by pulling government funding. Research may slow down mind control/reading tech, but where there's a will there's a way. Private business or other nation's research organizations will still pursue work in areas where there is an advantage to be had. The U.S. will always be at a disadvantage when an area of technological research is closed out on the basis that a technology may be too dangerous, or have some undesirable uses. This means that for better or for worse genetic engineering, thought monitoring, invisibility or any other intriguing technology will be the focus of a U.S. government project at one time or another. The price for not conducting such research is that other "factions" may have the use of technologies wereas the U.S. will not.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  14. If horses had Gods, their Gods would be horses

    An article about ethics, science & technology in the belief blog?! ..lolololohahahahlol ;.D .. tear..sniff

    November 13, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  15. WITNOD

    Does the Bible say anything about mind-reading leading to control of the masses? No. As a Christian I am not concerned with whether science will unravel the mind to the point it can read thoughts. I’m happy that I’m saved by the blood of Christ. I’m looking forward to being resurrected in a new body, with a mind wedded to a spirit of ever-lasting creativity.
    God is the Creator. We, made in the image of him, long to create, to find new worlds, to – oh, that’s Star Trek, but you get the idea.
    Fear of the government wanting to learn how to read our minds in order to control our thoughts is akin to saying that God would want us to be automatons. Why would he want that? That’d be boring!
    What God has done is given us his creative spark, hope for an eternity of making stuff up and the parameters within which to do it, forever, without blowing ourselves up in the process. Well, we do so to our mortal bodies but, eventually, we’ll all either live eternally blessed and in accordance with how he wishes us to create with him; or, we’ll be destined to a life apart from him because, against our own conscience, we chose to act against those parameters.
    Simple as that, in other words, no need to worry about man, as said in Isaiah 2:22 – “Cease from man, whose breath is in his nostrils, for wherein is he to be accounted of?”
    Instead of worrying about what man can do to me I thank God for the Bible and am happy with such thoughts as the Apostle Paul had, concerning our present trials, as recorded in Romans
    8:18-21 – “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
    Paul also speaks very wisely about what we can expect concerning just how clearly we can ever expect to see in this world vs. the next, as recorded in 1 Corinthians 13:12 – “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
    There is no expectation whatsoever from Paul that, even as a chosen amongst Apostles that he will be given some mystical powers to divine the thoughts and intents of the hearts of others. Such power is God’s and one can either choose to believe that he truly does have the whole world, in his hands, or not.
    The bottom line is this, putting stock and faith in a hope that man will eventually become God-like and be able in his eventual God-likeness to create the best of all possible worlds for future man is as hopeful in putting faith in the tooth-fairy. I’d rather be considered, along with Paul, to be considered insane in my Christian faith.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • JW

      Just curious about one of your assumptions–how do you know your God doesn't want you to be boring? Maybe his idea of boring isn't the same as yours?

      November 13, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • sybaris

      It's unfortunate that there will be an instant in time when people like yourself realize this is all there is and that you should have done more with this life than throwing it away waiting for another one.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  16. Bob

    This could turn out to be a good thing. Once the government knows how little is in the minds of most Americans they might go back to funding education.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • bmj


      November 13, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  17. baby sing

    wasn't 'men who stare at goats' a true story? if it wasn't, it was funny. it it was....well, nothing new.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      total fiction based on a book by the same ti.tle

      November 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  18. Henry

    It isn't nearly as accurate as the author is making it out to be. He is right on the ability to determine if someone understands a language but that is about as deep as it can go with any accuracy. At best it only determines if two or more people are thinking of concepts that they independently think are equivalent. Determining which concepts they are is, at best, an educated guess.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  19. Hmmmm...

    The only group reading anyone's thoughts is CNN through these blog pages .. it's ingenious really. Now they know what/how we think & can manipulate the "news" to generate the most interest = web hits = advertising dollars!

    November 13, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  20. PsychGirl

    Uh this guy is a fear mongering fool. We are not even close to using that technology in a useful or cost productive way. How paranoid are you! You must normally write stories for FOX news...

    November 13, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Hans Gruber

      NAIVE and misguided faulty thinking PsychGirl. Right now the tech is crude but will be dangerous in 50years... in the next 15 you and I will not be able to stop it- now we can..cause is not useful YET!

      November 13, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • CraigHolm

      Check these out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8STHiP7HZY, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jc8URRxPIg –
      Nuff Said

      November 13, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
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.