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. ponderer

    Fascinating !

    I wonder what this debate and philosophy does to the inevitable maturation of the the global brain, that is well underway, thanks to the same technologies that make this neuroscience-based mind reading possible.

    Perhaps mind reading will evolve to a new species awareness that is concisely stated as the quintessence of the Upanishads in Indian philosophy : Tat Tvum, Asi – You are that.

    ...and then privacy goes to naught !

    November 13, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  2. Guest

    Brain reading is and has been around for a long time. Its what determines consciousness of an individual as to how good they can do it... without brain scanning technology. There are spiritual precepts tha

    November 13, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  3. popcorn

    Government Reading People's mind... OKAY... I have huge crush with very young Michelle Bachmann with high heels and her legs. Clone another one.

    November 13, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  4. George

    The government has no real problem telling us what we need to not do . The problem with this is like everything they do it comes from movies that was made in the 1980s . Like Terminator , Robo cop and so on . They want to build a evil devil world and control us and do away with god . Its not the ones doing its goal but its the ones making them do it . The same ones that took out hitler and took whatever he had is the ones doing this now . Hitler was bad but it was just 1 bad vs 1 bad and the other bad got what he had

    November 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • George

      I would like to add also that the top nations pushing for the EVIL devil world is

      1. United states
      2. China
      3 Iran
      4 All of Europe

      They act like the hate each other but they are all on the same team in reality

      November 13, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • John Richardson

      God has been an intrinsic part of much evil in this world.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  5. QueenofCoffee


    November 13, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  6. ja-coffalotte

    A new revolution is coming, yes, 2012 is upon us; all organizations that have used their power wrongly will be corrected, vanquished, this includes the USA government, ba-bye now.

    November 13, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Rob F

      You'd rather a state like Iran or China spearhead such science? Uh huh. Any hoot.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • John Richardson

      2012 will come and go and the same old same old with trundle on.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  7. Ruspanic

    Why is this in the Belief blog? It's a legitimate concern, and there's only one reference to God in the whole article.

    November 13, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Because it's about ethics.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  8. Sal

    By the time any ethical debate is raised on whether or not a practice should take place, the practice is already taking place.

    By the time Opie over there realizes there is something wrong enough to write a story about it, the damage has been done.

    November 13, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  9. BHS

    they track us already.....control out finances...control our behavior...... aaaaaaaa..........

    November 13, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  10. szfgdxfhxdcfh

    CNN, Why is this article under "Religion"?? It talks about neuroscience!

    November 13, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  11. bobcat2u

    If the government could read my mind right now, I'd probably have law enforcement at my door. Wait, does the first amendment protect freedom of thought as well ?

    November 13, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  12. James

    Oh dear me, that would be a terrible waste of taxpayer money. Today, I look government officials in the eye and tell them directly what I and my fellow Americans want. They don't get it now, so why waste good money on a project to help them see what I am thinking, when we could spend it on a really nice dog park? Besides, at this stage, people don't really want to know what I am thinking.

    November 13, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  13. Chris

    Reading minds is something tyrannical dictatorships do, not a democratic society. Of course this country becomes more like a dictatorship everyday so who cares what we think. NO!!! Stop doing this!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  14. Galabb

    FINALLY! Lets read our elected government members' minds every year and before every election and make the results public! They shouldn't "mind" this if they are being honest with us! Anyone agree?

    November 13, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  15. Kent From TEXAS


    November 13, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  16. Conky2012

    You know, Televised Programming is just that, programming.

    November 13, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  17. MIT

    If you have nothing to hide, why worry?

    November 13, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Bobwithab

      I hope that was sarcasm... otherwise it is a sad example of mindless deference to authoritarianism to suggest that the state should own one's body & mind, instead of the individual which is the case in a free society.

      November 13, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  18. pulsars

    The government should read minds – I can get a design patent for a tinfoil hat that can also be used as a Wifi antenna when connected to tablets and smartphones. I'll make a fortune from all the crackpots. : )

    November 13, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  19. Cathoryn

    Use neuroscience to detect & disarm a terrorist. Go DARPA! Go!

    November 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  20. YES

    I seriously doubt that this article reflects the current state of the art of mind manipulation technology.

    This article is more like 20 years behind of what is currently being used.

    Besides they already know what you're thinking – They've programmed you and have been doing so for generations.

    I'm sure Micheal Shermer could take this apart, but it doesn't mean it isn't true.

    Cognitive Science, the new Mind Control distraction for PHDs

    November 13, 2011 at 2:15 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.