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. SCAtheist

    Next thing you know they will be able to take a picture of you in the shower.

    I'm not seeing this a great ethical issue.

    November 13, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  2. Blahblahblah

    I'm sick of all these articles, studies, etc. based on the premise they know what I'm thinking, how I'm feeling and so forth. It's the height of arrogance, stereotyping and pigeonholing. I'm not worried about anyone actually reading my thought I'm worried about them convincing themselves that they can and then acting accordingly. The mind is too complex to unlock fully any time soon, people however can be incredibly simple and very apt to think they understand something long before they actually do.

    November 13, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  3. tallulah13

    I'm a little confused as to what this has to do with "belief."

    November 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      I guess the figure they must throw a little science in to appease us.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  4. Ben

    This is a great development. Mind reading scanners should be placed in all public places. Anyone not keeping in line with what the government wants can then be identified and removed. Look forward to it.

    November 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  5. 11.11

    There are "some" people already out there that can read minds/manipulate peoples feelings that surround their presence.
    Power to the people!

    November 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      As any rational thinking mind on here would request: please provide the evidence for this.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Natedawg

      True. I think everyone does a little bit of mind reading on a daily basis.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Natedawg: And I think you're wrong. Making such a claim requires evidence for which none has ever been presented.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  6. Natedawg

    We must all start learning Occlumency now, duh. Don't you guys learn anything from Harry Potter?

    November 13, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  7. NicSin

    This is very rudimentary. Real advances in thought reading when we try understand the programming language of the brain. What signals brain send? What each signal activates/ deactivates?
    Comparing the activated area image is like looking at an active computer processor to find out the bug in the code.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  8. BCA

    The problem with reading one's minds with these scanners is that the person doing the reading would have to assume that x=x and a=a, when there are plenty of brains out there who believe x=y and a=8. A human brain is not a computer than can reliably and consistently produce results in a particular parameter, it can easily be confused just as much as it can give false positives. You can read it all you want, but just like a lie detector test, the results would be inadmissible in court because there is a chance, however slight, of it being inaccurate and wrong.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • NicSin

      U made my point. Absolutely correct.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  9. Scott

    Should the government be allowed to read minds? No.

    Will citizens allow the government to read minds? Yes.

    You know the reason why.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • TruthPrevails


      Should the government be allowed to read minds? No (i can agree with that)

      What I can't agree with wholeheartedly is the as.sumption that people will allow it. No rational minded person would be foolish enough to fall for such bs as someone claiming to have ability.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Shandril

      Of course, the governmental officials, the military personnel, and the police forces will be exempted by law from any requirements to undergo these brain scans when that day comes.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Scott

      I would have said the same thing ten years ago regarding the government having the ability to to a virtual strip search of citizens (including children) using back-scatter x-ray machines. Over the past 50 years we've proven over and over again that we're willing to give up a lot in return of a false promise from the government to keep us safe.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Jen

      To TruthPrevails, the people probably won't know, the media will probably be reporting on something else. Do you think nothing ever gets snuck past them?

      November 13, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Jen: You're an idiot!!! This is not possible and never will be!! Do some valid research before spewing stupidity!! The James Randi foundation has been debunking such claims for years.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Scott


      Lie detector tests have been shown to be unreliable and basically useless as well. Although lie detector results can't be used as evidence in court, they're still widely used for other proposes.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  10. Shandril

    This "research" is pure Evil. It can serve no good purpose. Why are we allowing it?

    November 13, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Q

      Because understanding the how the brain functions allows for therapies and interventions for all manner of brain injuries. Are you really that dense?

      November 13, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • leroy

      Really nothing to fear – even though everyones basic brain structures are the same – the rest is unique therefore it would be impossible to create one model for everyone – so being able to actually to read ones complex thoughts will not happen – emotional states is another story though but we do that to each other already even if somewhat inaccurate

      November 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Shandril

      Q: No, I am not "that dense," but neither am I "dense" enough to resort to insults when I disagree with someone.

      I will say this, however: While it may enable scientists to determine the level of consciousness of a person in an apparent coma, for example, I am not sure that this justifies stripping everyone of his or her thought-privacy, which is precisely what the State will do with this technology when it matures. Science without ethics is dangerous, as history has proven time and again.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  11. BlueNile

    1984. All good things can end badly... learning while you sleep is a better--thanks BKS.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  12. rabidmob

    We must plan for this technology to come to fruition and prepare accordingly. While reading our minds is quite bad, placing a thought in our minds would be a much more sinister crime.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  13. Peter E

    If mind reading becomes a reality, it's not the government you should worry about. It's corporations. Many of them have already hired neuroscientists to use brainscans on people to see how successfully manipulative their advertisements are. If full mind reading becomes a reality, nothing will stop them from manipulating you.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  14. Jack Anderson

    I hate to disillusion everybody but just think of the phone system, a chip and wireless. Only back then it took an antenna in the 30's & 40's.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  15. Herr Kleinherst

    At least the Teapublicans don't have to worry about this. They don't have any thoughts worth reading.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  16. Willa

    ""1984"" Very dark, Very sad.. all the mad monkeys in such a rush to make a world no one would even Want to live in. In the name of "Progress".. Where's the end of the tracks, time to join the "Book People"

    November 13, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Sanjeev

      You are not alone NOW WHAT. I tend to want to fix things and offer toenliciusd advise. It's hard to watch from the outside where it all makes such sense and bite your tongue.Sure my friends get frustrated with me for the very same reason they tell me what to do and I rarely listen!Moral is to just be good listener and throw in your two cents only when asked?

      April 1, 2012 at 5:35 am |
  17. rose

    is orwellian an understatement here?

    November 13, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Willa

      All should answer in a Terrorized ""YES""

      November 13, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  18. curtis

    They'll never be able to read people's minds other than watching your computer and what you type.
    But I sure wish they COULD read my mind.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  19. BS

    This would be a reason for many people to leave this earth you idiots! This would be the worst thing to happen in society! Breaks every amendment in the whole book, dont matter if it doesnt relate to one of them either, it would be rediculous!

    November 13, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  20. BKS

    How bout a Dream Learning chip!!! where you get educated in your sleep n your dreams.

    November 13, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
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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.