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. leroy

    Will not occur since everyone's brain has uniqueness to it and changes continually on a second by second basis – this is really more antiscience – what i mean is no complex mind reading will ever happen. I think that self-awareness will have to be figured out first and what i have studied suggests neuroscientists still do not know or have a precise idea.

    November 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  2. Snarks

    Obama and the liberal lemmings would love this. Those disgusting pigs.

    November 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • leroy

      Who went further to create the police state?

      November 13, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, can it, you jerk. Liberals are not in favor of the intrusion of government on personal freedoms. That would be the Republicans-they're the ones who think it's their business to control what women do with their own bodies.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Snarks

      Yes, liberals are. They are the ones who started the airport scanning, and went on to make it so that they can grope you, your children, etc. The conservatives have been trying to fight it off for the last couple of years, but the liberals are steadfast in making sure they can continue this insanity. Not to mention, obama extended the patriot act.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      BA- freakin' LONEY, you moron. Grow a brain, you idiot.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  3. brodeano

    so the people with the foil hats have been right all along!

    November 13, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  4. ImaSophia

    So now they are trying to find mechanical means to do what intuitives have been doing for centuries... Reading people's minds is not new. They truly do not have a clue as to what is the human psyche.

    November 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  5. Luz

    What's really scarey is that given that the technology exists – it would be naive to think it's not already being used by the agencies and administration. Do we trust individuals in our government, with access to this type of technology, to be respectful and use it for (disabled) or medically needy individuals that could clearly benefit from the technology, or would those in power be more inclined to use the technology for opportunistic self-serving endeavors?
    What does the track record say?

    November 13, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Ted

      We erased all the track records.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  6. phil


    November 13, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Ted

      Already done. With no caps.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  7. Neo

    If this technology can recognize thoughts, it follows that it could be able to stimulate & create thoughts as well. Ultimate mind control. At that point we're all just batteries anyway.

    November 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Agent Smith

      Mr. Anderson .... It will be far better for everyone if you just integrate existentially into popular culture and stop your morbid thinking.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Ted

      You already are. Now get back to your station and get your digits back into the electrolyte.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  8. dr. perry fisher


    November 13, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Ted


      November 13, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  9. Quick With A Quip

    Unnatural, unethical, unconscionable.
    White peepul b playin wit FIYA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Dayum Jooz...

    November 13, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  10. Amandeep Mann

    More power in the hands on 1%

    November 13, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  11. Bea

    And we thing religion is bad!!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Ted

      It is.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:40 pm |


    November 13, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Ted

      Now if only they would stop all caps posts.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  13. toadears

    Been coming for a long time. Start practicing now how to cloak your thoughts. They always need some form of electronic equipment to be able to do anything, so all you have to do is fool the machine.

    November 13, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Amandeep Mann

      or start smoking grass...no thoughts at all

      November 13, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Ted

      In 2111, the machine fools you.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  14. Jeff

    We will pass through the scanner, be shown a picture of the Great Leader, and if our brains don't show love and admiration, we will be punished. Or killed.

    November 13, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • If horses had Gods, their Gods would be horses

      Kinda like walking into a church.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • toadears

      No one in church asks you or even cares if you to stop by, much less commands it. WRONG. And juvenile.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • If horses had Gods, their Gods would be horses

      In the context of Jeff's post, still accurate. We need to prevent any organization from using this type of tech, be it our own government, military or the religion industry.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  15. Jon Dough

    Is it just me or does posting this article in the belief blog not make any sense?

    November 13, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Ethical beliefs are beliefs, last I checked!

      November 13, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Jon Dough

      This is a religious belief blog not an ethical belief blog though, that's why it doesn't make sense to me. This should be in the tech or even medical blog since these are ethical questions for either of those fields, this has no connection to any religion, at least from what I read.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Well, the author did use the word "god" at least once. I guess it counts.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Jon Dough

      Good point tallulah13, guess that answers that 🙂

      November 13, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  16. Dr Jeffrey Thompson

    This field of inquiry is inevitable for science in the 21st Century, just as the Human genome project and stem cell research, etc. But the moment government gets involved there are frightening issues involved, especially in the current atmosphere of distrust of the general population toward the government as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement. As a physician and a scientists in brain research, I am welcome this research into the secrets of being able to see inside the mind. This could be a great benefit toward understanding a number of diseases of the mind and possibly new insights in how to treat different mental conditions. It could have fantastic implication for learning and memory enhancement. It could expand the borders of our understanding of ecstatic states of consciousness and "spiritual revelation and experience.
    However, all of this enthusiasm I have in this realm is tempered by the very real fear of government intervention and the political and "Black Op" uses of the present culture of government and multinational corporation control of our live in the 21st century. We already have what appears to be a Central Bank (Federal Reserve) global cartel control of the world's money supply and therefore control of governments for the profit of the few. We have spy satellites that can see how many hairs on a persons head and see through houses, we have cameras on every street corner watching all we do, GPS locators in our phone telling the government were we are at any moment, what appears to be a rising Police State that beats up, maces, tear gases and shoots our innocent protesters in the streets of all our cities as they exercise their "1st Amendment Rights". Therefore, I do Not feel this is the time in history to give this malignant oppressive force of power, corruption and money the power to invade our minds and see (and possibly control) what I am thinking in the private domain of my own mind. I don't trust the forces in power in the world at the present time to have the decency, the humanity or the Conscience, to guide a proper use of this research and can clearly see the rise of the present Police State to a new nightmare level of THOUGHT POLICE.

    November 13, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Ted

      cool. so how 'bout them Broncos?

      November 13, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  17. aiquoy

    Frogs are interesting. If you took a frog and placed it in hot water, it would jump out immediately. If you took a frog and placed it in cold water and heated it slowly, it would stay in the water until it died. Except today, your liberties and rights are the frog, and the goverment's been slowly crossing the line of what's justifiable, all in the name your own security. If they said you giving them $10,000 would be beneficial to their immediate protection, there would be scepticism. However, if they said, "well, if you let us bypass these few rules, it would be easier for us to do what we need for your protection". "Well, now we have this situation, and we need to get around this...". Slowly, your rights, liberties, individuality are slowly deteriorating away. Pretty soon we would all be forced to wear the same clothes, live in goverment-appointed areas with closer goverment observation. Any scenarios throughout history sound familiar? There are many goverments with such action is common, and our nations cries out against it. And the beginnings of those abominations to humankind are surfacing again on our own soil.

    November 13, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • hippypoet

      awesome analogy! I love that one.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • If horses had Gods, their Gods would be horses

      This is happening, has happened & will always happen .. It is the natural evolution of society at every level.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  18. jam

    what if solving the hypothetical murder of your entire family and findin out where a hidden nuclear bomb is located depended on this tech?.. would it still be unethical?

    November 13, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • Kerry F

      Yes. Those who would trade liberty for safety deserve neither.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  19. David Johnson


    You said: "why not? I mean the only people who would be against it are those who have something to hide"

    Everyone has something to hide. At one time I was being considered for a job at 2 separate companies. I really wanted the job at one of the companies. I had been taken to lunch and interviewed several times. Things looked good, but a job offer hadn't yet come. The 2nd company also was showing interest. If the 2nd company had required a brain scan, they may have discovered that I would dump them in a minute for the other job. The 1st company did not offer me the money I wanted / needed. I ended up working for the 2nd company. I could have lost both.

    I would love to rub sun tan lotion on my neighbor's back. I'd rather my wife didn't know this.

    We all have things we don't want to share with the world. They may not be bodies in the basement, but they are our secrets.


    November 13, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  20. sk8104s8tan

    why not? I mean the only people who would be against it are those who have something to hide

    November 13, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Hey, why not just let the cops do random home searches. What do you have to hide? And you know that law enforcement is incorruptible and is ONLY interested in finding and punishing true miscreants. The police have never ever been used as a tool for the politically empowered to sic on the less powerful, Never ever!

      How can someone with such a clever screen name (though sk8104s810 would be better) be so dumb?

      November 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Chris W

      Everyone has something to hide. If you don't, then why don't you post your checking account numbers, balances, your address, phone number, family names, their phone numbers, where your children go to school, your SSN, your IRA account number, and whatever I have forgotten to mention here that should be kept hidden. I will believe your conviction that this should be allowed only after you do this.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • toadears

      hahahahaha Kind of like Penn State coaches and major banks and government politicians. They won't do anything illegal with this scientific knowledge because they have our best interests at heart. LOLOLOLOL Gullible.

      November 13, 2011 at 4:02 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.