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. jdoe

    Nice thoughts, but we all know what will happen. If they can do it, they will do it.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  2. PhilG.

    Read my mind,government

    This is what you will find.

    Get up,go to work,come home,go to sleep,get up,go to work ,come home,go to sleep get up,go to......

    Thanks to the Republicans ansd a president who gives away a half a billion dollars for supporting his campoaign I now know ,the poor people have no voice in the society.

    I'm not fighting it.

    Until then,I'll work as long as my torn up body and mind can and then when I can't,that will be it.

    I'll die someday and be done with it.

    Even the people that sell the government to the rich and all the rich people will die in time.

    That Grim Reaper,he's one bad dude.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  3. HolyChrist

    Better than water-boarding...

    November 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  4. Andacar

    It would appear that the truly whacked out conspiracy theorists weren't so crazy after all. I can see companies making iBrains or something like that which lowers people's fears of this kind of technology by making it cool. According to a lot of "experts" on the web privacy is already dead anyway. I suspect they will view this as just one more way to market to people. And where brain reading goes, brain manipulation can't be far behind. When that day comes the dreams of the Dick Cheneys of the world will finally come true, and the world will become a hive of worker bees. We are the market. Resistance is futile. I just hope it won't come in my lifetime.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  5. Mr Chihuahua

    This was a KBG experiment to try and control somebody's mind and make them write a $hitty article. Total success comrades lol!

    November 13, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • grumpy

      At least you don't have to worry about them reading YOUR mind... there's nothing to read. It's a book with no pages.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Mr Chihuahua

      The KGB said the minds of the public register minimal humorous reaction to your joke lol!

      November 13, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  6. Instead of reading this article try;

    Top 10 Companies Hiring Now
    with the holidays coming up, UPS says it plans to add a staggering 55,000 additional employees to its already huge workforce

    November 13, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  7. Lady Gaga is reading my mind!!!

    Help! She mocks me with her mind control!! Get this ugly b!itch out of my dome!!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  8. A mind is a trerrible thing to lose

    The government reading American minds...
    white noise

    November 13, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  9. M

    Yeesh, Nuclear weapons, now this, can I ever stop worrying about some new Technology that will change life as we know it.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • grumpy

      That's why god created drugs.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  10. DaveinSC

    I'm lining my baseball cap in tinfoil as I type.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Andacar

      Use lead sheets instead, it would work better.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  11. DaveinSC

    Once they learn to get our thoughts out, the next logical step will be to be able to put thoughts in.I see a whole army of Dick Cheney thought clones on the horizon. Run for the hills.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  12. Grist

    So, as long as we are not required to subject ourselves to this, it is not an invasion of privacy. Might be useful to use as an alternative to water boarding.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Ralf The Dog

      Even better, do both at the same time!

      November 13, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  13. M

    I doubt it, call me when they solve a murder by reading someones mind.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Ralf The Dog

      They can tell when a person is telling the truth or not. They can tell when a person recognizes a sound, a voice or a picture (I am sure it would work for smell also.) They are getting close to pulling pictures out of a persons mind. In the very near future, they will be able to put you in an MRI, show you a picture of a dog, then see what happened the last time you were with that dog.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  14. Martin

    The Thought Police are coming and it will be the end of free thought and doing anything that deviates in the slightest way from what authorities and the corporate masters want you to behave. Imagine a device like this in the hands of Gaddafi, the Iranian revolutionary guard and imans, the taliban, or for that matter the FBI and CIA. Any group in authority is guaranteed to abuse this and find any justification it can to do so.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  15. portland tony

    Such a device could only scan for perceptions. ie "The bad man wore a green suit". In this case, in all the excitement, I believe I saw a blue suit and swore an oath to that being fact, but, alas, in reality it was green. Would the mind reading machine really be able get to the truth by reading my mind?

    November 13, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Ralf The Dog

      There is no reason why it could not eventually pull up a movie that would be more accurate than your own direct memories. Your brain stores memories that are far more vivid and accurate than what you can recall.

      When doing brain surgery, neurologists quite often need to map parts of the brain so they don't damage any of the important bits (bad pun). When they electricity stimulate parts of the brain that store memories, people remember things they had forgotten many years before, in incredible detail. A 75 year old man might relive sitting in the kitchen with his mother when he was three years old. The memories are as or more real than what takes place day to day.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  16. Jim

    If you have nothing to hide, then you should be in favor of the government reading your mind.


    November 13, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Ralf The Dog

      Technology is not good or bad. Technology can not be stopped. If it can be done, people will do it. The question is, Will that technology be used for good or bad. It is time to start thinking about how it will be used. I don't think those rules will be formalized until the technology has been abused.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  17. there

    When you will lose all your rights. if that day happens you will die for just thinking wrong thoughts

    November 13, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Ralf The Dog

      That day was many millions of years ago. "I like birds. I think it might be fun to jump off of this mountain and flap my arms like one." Some ideas make the person whom they own stronger and more likely to live to see the next day. Other ideas get those whom they own killed. Those bad ideas don't tend to live as long.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  18. Susie

    Wow, we're already on a slippery-slope with the airport body scans. However, the mind scanners can only pick up what you are actively thinking about. They worked with the study participants because the participants cooperated, but it seems that the technology can be countered with techniques to avoid thinking about certain topics. What's more concerning, however, is the idea that employers could require it, because the scanners could probably also pick up thought blocking, forcing someone to either submit to having their mind read or not get the job. I think that we need to be proactive and pass legislation against this BEFORE it becomes a reality.

    November 13, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Ralf The Dog

      I would think you could bypass thought blocking with an FMRI.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Susie

      That's not to say that this technology can't be put to good, ethical use. It could be used as an assistive device for people with disabilities who are unable to effectively communicate otherwise.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Susie

      Ralf The Dog: I think that an FMRI also requires some amount of cooperation, doesn't it?

      November 13, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Ralf The Dog

      Another point, One of the things you can do with this technology is to detect recognition. You show the person a bunch of random slides. When they see a place they have been, you get a hit. You might even be able to guess at how many times a person has been to the place and how much emotional weight that location has.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Ralf The Dog

      Susie, with something just a bit more complex than today's FMRI, you could activate a part of a persons brain, then look at the patterns that activation created. They would not need to be awake.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Susie

      Ralf, that's a good point about recognition. It may be ethical to use that in the rare case of a lost person or victim with memory impairments (as a last resort), assuming you can get a "hit" even if the person does not consciously recognize the image. As for the complex FMRI, I know that parts of the brain can be stimulated, but do we really know enough about the brain to know where to stimulate it to get precise questions answered? Especially since our memories are comprised of a complex web of rather specific neuronal connections? It seems a bit dicey and unreliable.

      November 13, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  19. Sorou

    It'll help when it comes to murder cases and crimes, along with scandals and things like that. But going into the mind of your ordinary person and some type of regular basis is too much. \;(-_-)/

    November 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  20. Ralf The Dog

    I think the government should have the right under extreme conditions to read a person's mind, however, because this would be a violation of any number of civil rights, I think the person who is mind ripped should be given total immunity to prosecution. They can find where the bomb is, but they will use it as a last resort because, they will know, they can't put him in jail.

    November 13, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • DaveinSC

      There's always a reason to justify abuses. How come a WWal-Mart greeter has to take a pee test, but our law makers don't? Better yet, how about a mental competency exam?

      November 13, 2011 at 5:39 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.