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. waldopg3

    The government can't come up with a budget and in many cases think for itself. Do you think they will be able to read your mind? Common sense.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:06 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      I believe the government has more important things to do than read the mind of the people deluded enough to believe this garbage...the ones claiming to know the facts without validating their claims.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  2. TomJ

    I rarely fantasize about celery so I'm safe

    November 13, 2011 at 5:53 am |
    • vanwiek

      But what is to become of us closet celery lovers?

      November 13, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  3. jeriwho

    So scientists can highlight the parts of our brains activated by certain observations we make, and they can verify that lucid dreamers are lucid dreamers. How did this article make the front web page of CNN? No, scientists are NOT reading thoughts; they are reading brain activity. And of course none of us wants science to read our thoughts. What was the point of this article? To state the obvious in the face of the unproven? It's glib, inaccurate, and overly outraged. Why not print an essay on some of the pertinent ethical questions raised by science, instead of this nonsense?

    November 13, 2011 at 5:48 am |
  4. Mike R

    Watch what you think.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:46 am |
    • Mike R

      This is what caution signs would say in brain-scanning, public places...

      November 13, 2011 at 5:49 am |
  5. Beth


    November 13, 2011 at 5:46 am |
    • Charge Nurse Betty

      Why thank you for such an enlightened addition to the discussion. (And why not just say "fucking"?)

      November 13, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Maltese Falcon

      Your thinking has been noticed by the Brainwave Translation Computer and you have been scheduled for destruction.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  6. Chris

    Just as with current "Lie detectors", I'm sure people with proper training could fool such a device. Thoughts are more easily controlled than breathing, heart-rate and perspiration. Current lie detectors aren't considered reliable evidence in court. I don't think this would be any different. Beating the machine would become a right of passage for intelligence agents.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:45 am |
    • Steve

      Way, way, WAY overestimation on the current and near-future capabilities of advanced medical imaging. The more advanced imaging currently has a difficult time identifying an epileptic focus or characterizing something as basic as simple Alzheimer's dementia with any degree of sensitivity and specificity. Way, way overblown article.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  7. cconn

    Pretty sure if such a technology exists in the future (or even near future), the leaders of our government would never open that Pandora's box. Sure hook me up to whatever machine you create, lets just make it mandatory to hold a position in office.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:44 am |
  8. Sd

    Atually, I think this is awesome....put the person in a dream state, replay the place where the crime took place, look for markers by the person

    F the lawyers.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:43 am |
    • Sd

      And f these dumb dumb juries. This would be awesome if you could see memories. No one would ever commit a crime again because the chances of them getting away with it are virtually zero.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:45 am |
  9. Lepke

    Our brain and its function is much more complex than anyone can ever imagine. Scientist knows so little about it. There are a lots of diseases of the brain we cannot even begin to understand. Alzheimer, schizophrenia, autism, depression, bipolar disorder, panic and anxiety disorder, brain tumors etc. The neuro science is nowhere near to figure it out our thoughts and how we process information. Honestly I don't even think it will be ever possible, since often we don't even know what we are thinking.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:40 am |
    • Ana


      November 14, 2011 at 1:33 am |
  10. pierider

    Next will be the criminalization of possession, sale, manufacture, and distribution of tinfoil and hats made from it.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:29 am |
  11. Rahman D.

    This will never happen. Powerful political leaders and other people in power would be threatened with exposure of their own crimes and misbehavior. Good luck getting that through.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:18 am |
  12. robert g

    What? Occupy my mind? No way

    November 13, 2011 at 5:18 am |
  13. victor angueira

    Then it's time to go get me a metal helmet like Magneto from X-MEN

    November 13, 2011 at 5:16 am |
    • Mirosal

      I think it's time I bought shares of Reynolds Wrap ... I think their sales are about to skyrocket!! lol .. what's YOUR hat size? 😉

      November 13, 2011 at 5:24 am |
    • Mirosal

      @ MikeL ... you said "The gov first from my knowledge took tow Black boys in 1978, and 1979" ... Can you TRY to put that in English? And NO I do not work for the gov't ... not anymore ... I DID, I was out there at sea protecting your ass. Now the Navy sends me my retirement checks every month. And I'm a LONG LONG way from Connecticut. Next you'll tell me that child abductions are really the gov't in black vans and black helicopters looking for new test subjects?

      November 13, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  14. Drew

    The comments here show why governments will become all powerful, all controlling, and totalitarian in an extreme and dehumanizing fashion, probably making Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot look like boy scouts by comparison. The idea of any other person being able to know my private thoughts is an extreme outrage, a violation of all that is sacred, and perhaps the greatest threat to humanity ever. The fact that this is lost on all the commentors and the author himself is proof that the average person is blind and helpless and will willingly sacrifice their own humanity and that of everyone else because of ignorance, arrogance, and the effects of a lifetime of being subjected to mind control via television, the internet, and media in general. This is Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" where he predicted that people would become WILLING slaves and even love their slavery!

    November 13, 2011 at 5:15 am |
    • some dude

      I am a legitimate victim of mind control, most likely perpetrated by the United States government. Reading thoughts is one thing, forcing them upon someone is quite another. Imagine if I told you the United States government could take possession of your body as if it was their own, and walk you around and live your life without your permission, including speaking through you?

      Now if I were to tell someone that, I know the one thing that is most likely to happen:

      1) The audience will assume I am insane, and immediately barrage me with criticism based on their ignorance (such as "I've never heard of that! It doesn't exist!").

      I find this occurrence most troublesome, as I have been a victim of this type of torture and abuse for somewhere around 15 years. I have personally lived through it's development, as a human test subject, and what I have to say is: it's most important to educate the masses about this because as long as it isn't considered possible (a round earth revolving around the sun) legitimate victims of high-tech crime will go unnoticed.

      Have you ever tried reporting a high-tech crime to the CIA/FBI/NSA?
      Do you honestly think they would believe you if you told them the truth?
      Get me my freedom, I have much to share and multiple lawsuits against the FCC, my local police station, the CIA and the FBI that need be redeemed. Don't tell me that I forgotten, that simply isn't an option for someone living with "big brother" listening, one dimension most fail to understand is the length of time that "every waking moment of your life" consists of.

      Another important note:
      I feel that very few truly understand the implications of controlling the brain–as most of it's functions are abstracted from the.. Individual.

      When the time comes, ensure there are proper means of detecting and eradicating this horrible type of crime.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:20 am |
    • Cadiz

      @some dude, let me guess, you have also been abducted by aliens, believe the CIA flew the planes into the World Trade Towers and that Obama was born in Kenya? If they had those capabilities I think that would be kinda neat. I could use it the next time I get a speeding ticket... the government had taken over my body and they were making me speed.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:47 am |
    • Rebecca

      The best way to foil mind reading equipment is to think jokes. Yes, I also read 1984 and 2011 is much worse. As I get older, I see the cracks in the current setup and believe it will fall of its own weight. Take a look at the current slate of Republican candidates for the Presidency... these people can't tie their shoes in the morning, let alone control others. So who are their controllers? Corporate execs. Yep they are scary sounding, unless you work with them like I do. They are for the most part a bunch of numnuts. Corporations by their very structure support drones. The biggest problem with Nazi Germany were the drones who just did what they were told. If the people are waking up, it's all over for the nazi brigade.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:50 am |
    • FS_UK

      @somedude: you claim to be a "legitimate victim of mind control" and that you are or were a "human test subject". What evidence do you have for this? If you want people to believe you (I for one do not), you need to provide solid evidence for your claims.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:51 am |
    • some dude


      Actually I have none at all, other than my own word and a lifetime of experiences. You see, the problem is, when is the last time someone stuck a very expensive RF meter next to your head just for kicks?

      That is honestly the best I can do, and if it's so easy then I would suppose you could hypothesize an appropriate experiment to validate my claims? I honestly have no idea how to gain proof of any kind, aside from breaking into an FBI field office a la, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens%27_Commission_to_Investigate_the_FBI

      So yes I'm in quite a predicament, glad you noticed. If you have the time, would you mind answering me a question?
      What you do if you suddenly found yourself a victim of mind control?
      Would you expect your credibility would cause someone to believe you and end up saving you, or would you consider that a fairy tale?

      November 13, 2011 at 6:04 am |
    • Cadiz

      Hey @some dude, I really hate to tell you this, since I really try to be a nice person, but I wish more people would treat you with the derision your ideas deserve. Otherwise it lends some kind of credibility to what you are saying and some weak minded people may actually start believing you. It really irritates me if a court has even accepted your suits since it only wastes the money of honest taxpayers and ties up the courts with your lunacy. I am sorry to tell you this, but with the recession, I just don't have the money to send you for the mental health treatment you need. I wish I could or that the government had the spare funds to do that, but sadly the money is just not there. Perhaps try a religious group, maybe they can help.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:09 am |
    • some dude

      I expect you to give me the benefit of the doubt, as every person deserves–particularly because you haven't investigated my claims at all and as such your argument is just as foolish as you would make my claims seem to be.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:14 am |
    • Mirosal

      wait wait wait .... they put an RF METER by your head?? a METER??? dude, meters don't transmit, they receive. Hell, a radio, tv and cell phone all receive RF signals. A microwave oven and a Navy radar would transmit RF signals. So does a walkie-talkie. So just where was this super-secret experiment carried out? Area 51? Or District 9?

      November 13, 2011 at 6:17 am |
    • some dude

      The means by which a bodily organ (the brain) can be manipulated remotely is entirely unknown to me, and as a layman I have offered one tiny hypothesis about it, nothing more. Your guess is as good as mine, perhaps better, and I see that only good can come of someone taking such an interest in my problem.

      Please do feel free to provide your own, and if you can't then it's back to square one which involves one yet unfounded claim "I'm a mind control victim", and with it very much criticism that is just as much unfounded. Your post has seemingly accomplished nothing; it appears to be another argument based upon ignorance and a horse is an ignorant waste of time horse, of course of course.

      Please refer to point 1:

      1) The audience will assume I am insane, and immediately barrage me with criticism based on their ignorance (such as "I've never heard of that! It doesn't exist!").

      November 13, 2011 at 6:24 am |
    • Cadiz

      @Somedude, as I said, I am sorry if that hurts your feelings, but it is just silly. Should I give someone the benefit of the doubt it they post that the moon is made of green cheese or if the world is really flat? No, those claims are as nonsensical as yours. I suggest that you get some real help, not look for it on a CNN discussion board.

      November 13, 2011 at 7:39 am |
    • Cadiz

      In addition, you are costing me and all of the other taxpayers here real money by filing court suits for your imaginary problems. I am sorry to also say that I feel the courts really should hold you financially liable for the frivolous law suits

      November 13, 2011 at 7:43 am |
    • some dude


      What exactly is nonsensical about my claims?
      The U.S. Government doesn't have the technology to read minds? Surely you can imagine how something of that caliber would be of value to "defense" or whatever you want to label their crimes.

      Or was it that you don't think the U.S. government has the technology to manipulate the mind as well?
      I think you're a fool, and hopefully some day you will be proven wrong.

      November 13, 2011 at 7:44 am |
    • MikeL

      people that don’t believe this is going on are the one that will abuse and misuse the type of tec to get away with all that they can.

      November 13, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • some dude


      Most troublesome though, is that you are unwilling to lend a moment of your time to think about a way to either prove or disprove my claims, but seem to instead waste it on telling me that you don't believe me. You are truly counter-productive in this instance, and I almost would wager you work for something like the media.

      It does seem like you have your cards stacked right to believe what others tell you is true and disregard investigation of your own.

      November 13, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • MikeL

      Mirosal I think you work for the gov. You are going to be the one that they can use to stop people for getting at the truth. I know for a fact that is is going on right now, as we speak, in CT. All I ask is that if you are not too far away go and see for yourself. The gov first from my knowledge took tow Black boys in 1978, and 1979.

      November 13, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • Mirosal

      damn put it in the wrong spot, we'll try this again ... @ MikeL ... you said "The gov first from my knowledge took tow Black boys in 1978, and 1979" ... Can you TRY to put that in English? And NO I do not work for the gov't ... not anymore ... I DID, I was out there at sea protecting your ass. Now the Navy sends me my retirement checks every month. And I'm a LONG LONG way from Connecticut. Next you'll tell me that child abductions are really the gov't in black vans and black helicopters looking for new test subjects?

      November 13, 2011 at 8:06 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Mirosal: OMFSM, can they really be that stupid??? Some Dude claims to have proof but it only comes from him and therefore it does not validate as anything more his delusions for which he might be perceived as being schizophrenic. The same goes for MikeL. Both these fools need serious help. They both need to submit their claims to James Randi for investigation and once they are proven WRONG (b/c any rational sane person knows they will be), they can come back here and apologize for spreading the stupidity to the world!!

      November 13, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • Mirosal

      Yes, they realy CAN be that stupid .. on page 6 MikeL accused me of working for the N.S.A. lol .. I think he's off his meds. I LOVE the James Randi bit ... he's still got that $1 million US currency available lol ... I think both of them would make great buy-bull thumpers. Both are full of bull, and are deluded enough to actually believe those fairy tales!! lol

      November 13, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  15. T

    It's only privacy invasion if you were brought up thinking your thoughts were supposed to be private. For the next generation they will be quite happy to learn their every thought are exposed to machines and adjust their behavior accordingly. It's called progress. Think how much energy we can save by avoiding speech and writing – it's the thought that counts, in most cases.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:10 am |
  16. Terrance Wood

    Even if they could; most of the minds aren't that interesting on the grand scale. If they had mind reading devices monitoring people as they walked through a store, it would generally be limited in interested to those that gossip or desire to take that which isn't their own. The real potential for damages, is that such a thing is closer to absolute power than a nuclear bomb. Heads of State shouldn't have it. Leaders would inevitably exemplify incompetence, utilizing such a thing, beyond basic deterrence.

    If you really need to read a citizen's mind to control them–you are out of control yourself. God himself doesn't exert such forces, to effectuate ephemeral and futile objectives based on the grounds of defending against an adversary. That behavior is reserved for the weak and ill-willed.

    Thankfully, there is an impediment for us to read minds, the way people would envision such an ability. People just don't have the technical know-how, yet. Even if you don't believe in God, people could willingly submit that based on observation–we are the Least Significant Bit. All that, and still I digress: If we sufficiently progress ourselves towards a more affable and dynamic existence; telepathy and telekinesis, if functionally proven, also have other hypothetical potentials, beyond ill-will.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:03 am |
  17. DCPam

    To me it seems like a lot of unnecessary research on animals.

    November 13, 2011 at 4:48 am |
    • FS_UK

      Actually, this does not involve animals (if by animals you mean to exclude humans). Such studies can only be done on humans. Other animals do not even have the linguistic brain areas we do (with the possible exception of dolphins).

      November 13, 2011 at 5:58 am |
  18. unafy

    Then No more spy!!!!!!!!!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 4:47 am |
  19. alateos

    Would like to see how this would translate into IT

    November 13, 2011 at 4:41 am |
  20. Mike R

    I wonder if the test subjects were physically grouped together or if the study was individually done in sepereate cases. And, if they were done at the same time, what results would it give in regards to proximity each is distanced from the center of the group. Or, is there a mastermind that is, knowing or unknowingly, able to project their thought patterns into others. Interesting study, I bet scanners are being used already, as we speak.

    November 13, 2011 at 4:39 am |
    • Rose

      I find this an interesting subject as I saw a TV show about how scientists were using the mind of paralyzed people to move machines I think it was or something like that.

      So probably it started out to help people with physical limitations, but eventually will be used to maintain order in society. For instance monitoring the minds of potentially violent people, pedophiles, instilling a "conscience" into those thought to be lacking one, to insure honesty in lower level employees at banks, stores and in other professions where it is in the interest of society to have control of behaviors of employees. In other words, quality control.

      This would in fact eliminate the need for prisons, mental hospitals, police, laws and even courts. No need for any of the legal profession in fact. Scientists (doctors?) would be in control of the masses. It sounds like science fiction, but I think it will become science fact in this country eventually.

      I imagine some people will not have this done to them, but probably eventually only those wealthy (a new definition of wealth) enough to either live in remote areas of this country and/or not have to work or those living in some less" advanced" country will escape this type of control.

      To the gentleman who claims he has already had this done to him. Have you ever been involved with the mental health system or the prison system? How did you get into a position where someone would want to control you or your thoughts?
      If you have a plausible answer to these queries I would definitely not dismiss you as either a paranoid or a liar.

      Although it may seem like a good idea on the surface, only those not having it done to them would be all for it. In other words the wealthy owners of companies. It is in fact a form of slavery.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:16 am |
    • Mike R

      Very interesting, thank you for your comment, Rose. But, I bet even news articles like these can be used to construct an idea to promote fear of the government. By any particular political party? I mean, if we are going to live in an equal and balanced society, we may have to ask ourselves: what do we really have to hide? Wouldn't this idea instill morality in this growing social-conscience? I believe that's where religion can help science

      November 13, 2011 at 8:25 am |
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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.