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. JorgeB

    Calm down, everyone, including the author of this piece. Even if the technology became sophisticated enough one day (and that day is long away–I should know since I am a scientists working in the brain imaging field), it would still be subject to the same constraints as are used today, let's say, in a lie detector test. Whatever safeguards are in use for that test could also be applied to any brain scanning use. Besides, it could be used in principle to exonorate someone who is not guilty; so why would you not allow someone to exercise the right to the technology? The other point that ethicists miss, because they don't actually ever set foot in a laboratory, so they don't quite understand certain details, is that–as in the case of a lie detector–brain imaging technology would be vulnerable to people thinking false thoughts. In other words, even if you could read my mind–which these techniques cannot do in fact–all I would have to do is think of a false answer and the technology would report that that is what I was thinking about. So really, no need to get our knickers in a twist about it!

    November 13, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Alex

      Exactly, and some of those false thoughts could be triggered by the fear of getting caught (even you're guilty). You may end up playing the scenario in your head accidentally. They would need to be able to distinguish between thoughts from reality and thoughts formed by imagining. All thoughts and memories are subject to change. We experience something, but over time those memories get altered by associations and new experiences.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  2. BKS

    Ha haa haa ..Cant do that to me. I can turn my thoughts off like a switch.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  3. Mahmoud El-Darwish

    And to think almost everyone made fun of the aluminum foil cap society!
    One thing is for sure, if the DARPA et al keep on this path, it will be cause for vacating the country- of it's brightest minds.
    government beware- you are shooting yourself in the foot 🙂

    November 13, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  4. There are no gods!

    What a crock! What could you have to hide there Dr. Paul Root Wolpe? If the idea of this technology bothers you so much what are you hiding? I welcome this and other technologies for the simple reason that I have nothing to hide. So put up those cameras that will keep the robbers and murderers away, start the brain scanning that will allow those that have committed crimes to be found out. It is all about staying alive, for unlike you I do not believe in an afterlife so death for me is the end. I am in to keeping my life as long as possible and know that once I am dead that is it. This is reality. There are no gods. Wake up!

    November 13, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • There is NO atheists in the foxhole.

      I have been so amazed reading all the comments on this article. Love to hear people exchanging views and sharing vast their knowledge in Science.

      Although they don't share the same thoughts on the article but keep it on topic, until you came to make a post just to push your own political agenda. How SAD!

      November 13, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • John Richardson


      November 13, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  5. Richard

    I hate to break it to you, but do you really think they're going to stop research in this area because it offends someone's sensibilities? I would wager that, if we are hearing about this right now, DARPA and the NSA have already developed this technology in secret and have pushed it much further than we will ever know. They're probably already using it right now. God, they're probably reading my thoughts right now. Can you tell what I'm thinking? I'm gonna start wearing a tin foil cap on my head.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  6. GalaXun

    "Not hard to think of technologies that can be used for good or evil.
    But it takes religion to make good people do evil."


    You're nothing but just a cute example of atheist's incapability to help themselves form pushing their own political agenda on any topic of every article everywhere.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • GalaXun


      November 13, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Nah

      stars: "Not hard to think of technologies that can be used for good or evil.
      But it takes religion to make good people do evil."

      Ah, right. Because people are violent and evil insofar as they're religious, not insofar as they're human.

      Brilliant logic.

      galax: "You're nothing but just a cute example of atheist's incapability to help themselves form pushing their own political agenda on any topic of every article everywhere."

      Atheist trolls aren't very good at trolling 🙂

      November 13, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Moe Smith

      amazing that you're so caught up in attempting to try to insult someone that you miss your typo and have to follow up with a reply to your own post with a correction. Talk about a walk of shame. Go drink your fncking kool-aid and get off the internet

      November 13, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Miss Demeanor

      I'm not an atheist and agree with the original post. You're living in denial if you don't believe beliefs, especially religious beliefs aren't inflamed to start wars. Look at our own Civil War. A southern evangelical cult claimed the bible endorsed slavery (even admitted to it and apologized for it later). I'd recommend you don't keep drinking the evangelical kool-aid.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • GalaXun


      Honestly, I don't have concern regarding the logic (stars just borrowed it anyway). Pls. be guided that my concern was the ulterior motive behind using the quote even the article doesn't require it. Why? just to push own political agenda. How TYPICAL!

      And you said and I quote, "Atheist trolls aren't very good at trolling". Exactly because religionists trolls like you have been dominating in that category.

      @Moh Smith

      I would apologize but it was just the result of typing using ten fingers. But making a follow-up post to correct a typo before somebody else recognized it first is a proof that I don't "miss it". It is generally acceptable way and it have been widely used by posters for an erratum. On the other hand, saying: "miss your typo" is evidently a result of typing using half a brain.

      @Miss Demeanor

      You said:

      "I'm not an atheist and agree with the original post. You're living in denial if you don't believe beliefs"

      FYI, atheist believe in anything but religion.

      While your statement saying and I quote, "I'd recommend you don't keep drinking the evangelical kool-aid."

      Was a strong proof that your first statement was a utter lie.

      You're nothing but an example of atheists would lie on anything just to further their cause.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  7. oregontom

    What if you only speak gibberish?

    November 13, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  8. Alex

    I see problems with the reliability of such technology. One of the issues is that fearful thoughts cause other thoughts, so someone that is innocent could be so afraid of being found guilty that they begin to create the scenario in their head of committing a crime. It's the white elephant test. In order to not think about a white elephant, you have to think about it. I believe it's one of the causes of OCD. Resistance can be futile. This could become reliable if they are able to separate thoughts based off of a past reality versus thoughts of the past formed by fear.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  9. Chris

    All men would be locked up if mind reading became available. There are things in mens minds that should never, NEVER, EVER, be seen. We have so many parts to are personalities. We are animals first humans due to organization. We supress the base animal instincts but we still think about it.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  10. williamb293

    This is great news halfway through any senate ,house or presidental term. The people serving the USA should submit to this and be question about political corruption. They will not be able to lie. also the people at the FDA should have to submit to these test periodically to deter corruption.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Hadenufyet

      They will always hide behind the premise of "National Security' to evade any incrimination.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  11. Mel

    When someone is head of Emory University’s Center for Ethics they are expressing an opinion from the viewpoint of their profession. So the view is from the perspective of someone considering ethics. We each have a choice of doing what we feel to be correct. That determines what we think is ethical. I find it interesting that a 5 year old can understand it is wrong to hit someone and then make an excuse; but an adult will feel totally justified even when they are making excuses. Many of the comments so far have said more about each person's priorities than the topic of ethics. The comments that deconstruct the subject matter fragment the topic and can follow no common reference or understanding. The exchange becomes pointless. This just leaves us with a perspective that we are the center of our own universe. In other words just self centered. If we remove groups that have found a way to identify their shared ethical beliefs we again fragment our experiences as humans. This is a bitter and cynical viewpoint that severs no constructive purpose. Yes, life can be harsh. But if we are cynical about it we remove ourselves from the benefits of our experiences. We can enjoy giving as much as we enjoy receiving. For some of us that is enough. For others money and power is all they value and that is a ethical issue as well.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  12. Yeah

    Rig the device to a confessional. Your penance flashes on a screen and the box doesn't open until ......
    Why worry about the government?

    November 13, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  13. Patrick

    sensationalism.. psycholgical warfare.. limited mass media outlets to distribue disinformation to the population.. this is what happens when pirates run the country. our government uses fear and tension to keep us in line. meanwhile representatives laugh all the way to the bank. north korea's population which is millions strong is kept closed off from the world by one man. rest assured he uses the same tools our government does to keep his sheep in line too.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  14. Dreamer96

    There is of course the belief that the physical mind is not everything that makes up the human mind, how will a brain scan show creative though, that leap to a new idea? Could we reliably build a truth detector, or lie detector, that would be a real benefit to solving crimes....but what if a person could read out peoples minds, would they be effected by those minds, would the stronger of the two win, wheather it was from a good or evil mind...Would emotions overpower a system...

    Someday we might be able to implant a computer chip that can interact with the mind...that would be great for some..always spell every word correctly, make complex math calculations with ease...know all of history....as long as the chip contained the truth...

    November 13, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  15. NGN

    Technology is NEVER the problem. Only people are.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • BRYANT

      your absolutely right

      November 13, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Press to Digitate

      No, THIS technology most definitely IS the problem. It is the only significant problem confronting mankind. We know how to get off Carbon fuels, and arrest Global Warming; we know how to green the deserts and feed the world, to flatten the population curve and educate every child on the planet. Those are easy. But nobody can prevent that one idiot grad student from jacking in to the first Artificial General Intelligence with a full-duplex, high fidelity Brain/Computer Interface peripheral, a few Moore Doublings from now. From that moment, the human epoch is Over.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  16. Mark

    I'll let the government read my mind if I can read theirs.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Dreamer96

      And if you could, and they knew it, what do you think would happen to you....

      November 13, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  17. New Yawker, Ph.D.

    The real ethical issue here is how legitimate scientific endeavors are misrepresented in order to make an interesting story. Those of us who have worked in neuroscience know the limitations of neuro-technology, but there are no limitations on how the media misrepresents science including the publication of non-replicated studies just because it captures our imagination. There is no technology to read thoughts and any implication of such betrays a lack of knowledge about research methodology, statistics, the brain, and technology.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • SpecialPlace

      That may be true....but I hardly can think that it will not be solved one day or another. It may take much longer than what the author is predicting....but I cannot believe that it will never be accomplished. People laugh when I tell them that one day computers will probably be doing the chemistry research instead of us chemists. And, while Watson may have brought that reality one step closer...it is reasonable not to jump the gun on the timeline. It's not hard to see what the future can hold for science and technology....it tends to be very difficult in terms of predicting the amount of time it will take to get to that point, it seems.
      While I can't help but marvel at the ability for science to read minds....I do fear for the consequences. The author suggests that this time is coming soon....it may not be coming soon, but it will indeed be here before my death, that much I can be certain of.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Mel

      I feel the author acknowledged we are not there yet but there is a possibility given the rate at which some research has progressed. Again, I read this as an opinion about ethics and not about hard science.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Jon

      Absolutely. All media reports on scientific topics are basically just the imagination of a novice running away with itself. Little more.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  18. baatman74

    The following quote from the story brings our liberty and privacy into perspective... We already have none, reading our minds is just another violation we will be forced to live with...
    "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."
    What stops this is another revolution. We have way less freedom today as did our Founding Fathers when they wrote the Declaration of Independence... If it be any consolation, mind reading is way far off than his article would guess. Since humans can think, they can think about many things at once, fool the reader by thinking of butt-plugs..... Brahahahahahahahahahahahaha, just sayin...

    November 13, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  19. Dreamer96

    I am worried what the people in power will do with any new technology, what would Hitler have done if he could have built robot soliders...What did he do with any new weapon, but he used them to kill and conquer....Star Wars and the clone army that always will follow any order given, like a machine..both an asset, and great danger.......

    Remember how excited Rumsfield was about his Shock and Awe attacks on Irag....but the thing is the machines are coming and we need them, if for no other reason then the technology to build them is already out of our control, and those who will use that technology against us will someday have their robot warriors, so we need ours.....but how they are used will always depend on who controls them.... Mind reading is no different..other countries can, and may already be doing this, so now we must have some level of capability too...

    November 13, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  20. Marina

    To go back to the question as to who we really are as Human beings and as creation.. will cut us out of the chase of the whole thing. Nothing is more precious than the natural stuff. Continue to pique our minds by asking the right questions and we will eventually get there my brothers...<

    November 13, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
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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.