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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. Brittyates

    I have been asked before how I would feel about the government using satellites and technology to spy on me and I will say the same thing about this as I said about that... I have nothing to hide so I don't need to worry about it, but I have two little girls and if anything ever happened to them that required this information to help in their case then I am all for it. I would be more upset if the governmetn didn't use ALL of their resources to find some of the sickos in this countries.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  2. Troy

    Fear mongering. We are no where near this. I've heard of all these things, and we are nowhere near this.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  3. Kestutis

    yes there is. and I have implanted. Even worse, it enables to read human mind to other people who is around you from distance. it even enables to read thought from the distance and send info every night while you at sleep.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  4. MLGrant

    Sh'yeah, right...When the government can design a tax code that makes sense and actually works, THEN I'll start worrying about pie-in-the-sky stuff like this! Our government can't even balance it's own checkbook, let alone peek into our brains....a lot to do about nothing...

    November 13, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • MLGrant

      "Try as they might, they cannot steal your dreams..." – Cinderella Man, RUSH

      November 13, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  5. what?

    If it can only be used on our politicians, I'm all for it.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  6. senorfletch

    The human brain is not a reliable instrument anyways. Just as people can give false confessions now, and be sincere about them, so could a brain image implicate them for a crime they did not commit. And like current lie detectors, which are unreliable in themselves, people will be able to learn to beat the test. Remember as our knowledge of neuroscience increases it will not only give us better detection capabilities it will also give us greater deception capabilities.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  7. Passive Aggresive

    Comment 783

    November 13, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  8. Captive Audience

    One of the consequences of making employees sign non-complete agreements is that they keep their good ideas to themselves. With technology like this, employers can seed their most creative employees and then take their ideas by force.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  9. Maltese Falcon

    That was a German folk song about freedom of thought. But here in the Amerikan police state, how much freedom of thought is really allowed by military intelligence brainwashers? The comments of the mindless veteran conformists on Woodrow Wilson's Influenza Day do not indicate much provision for different opinions. O'Bama's inevitable crack down adequately shows how much toleration there will be during another 4 years of that stuff. Any Abu Grave torturers going to jail? Hasn't happened yet.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • JPALONSO

      Obama did NOT shove the "Patriot Act" down our throats. Dubya did that for you. Remember that "Abu Ghraib" was exposed in 2004 on Dubya's watch. Dubya's administration was the most secrative in US history. Dubya himself cited "National Secuirty" more times than any president ever. Your a fool if you believe that that last administration was squeaky clean. Remember the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plane? Tell me Cheney did't have something to to with that. Bush took away your freedoms under the guise of "if your a Patriot you have nothing to hide". Well guess what, Dubya had plenty to hide. He just had to power to do it. “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
      ― Benjamin Franklin

      November 13, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  10. anon

    Whoa, calm down... this is merely a more sophisticated lie detector. Employers and schools rarely use lie detectors, and just like the courts cannot order you to take a lie detector (you have to agree to it), the courts will not be able to force you to take a brain scan.

    November 13, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • 34uirh34bryut

      yet

      November 13, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  11. Jim

    the government should read minds with consent of the individual. I'd love to have the government read my mind and understand my grievances.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  12. amber

    I think in the future, they will be able to take a piece of your brain and read it like a hard drive.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  13. Paul

    Should not the 5th amendment protect us from the self-incrimination of giving a dna sample? Our dna is our"self" is it not? There is no difference between a scan of our neurons and a scan of our dna. Science has and continues to break down the dualism of the past.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
  14. j

    Laugh at my tin foil hat now mother f ke rs.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • IONiTLau

      I was thinking the same exact thing! Not so crazy now are they? LOL!

      November 13, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  15. Passive Aggresive

    Comment 773

    November 13, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  16. TR6

    Fortunately there is that lovely little 5th amendment that forbids self incrimination

    November 13, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  17. David

    I am very excited about the newest technology that is coming out that will help us learn about how the brain works. However, I agree with the author. If mind readings are allowed as evidence, who is to say that someone will just plant a fake memory, or say that I was thinking something I never did? A lot of good can come from this technology. You can help people suffering from abuse or a mental disorder, however, due to the invasive nature of what is going on, it should NEVER be forced upon people. I know that when I go through an airport, I should never utter the word "bomb", but the idea of a terrorist attack happening is always on my mind. If you saying the word "bomb" would get you extra attention, then what will they do if you dare to think about one?

    November 13, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  18. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    I don't worry about what people think. They don't do it very often. This site is proof positive.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  19. Boris

    In soviet russia computer knows you.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Maltese Falcon

      Russia has improved since Soviet days. Amerika is still the same. Mind reading technology will never be used for any good purpose by the Amerikan government. It will be used to identify and electronicly brainwash anyone with inappropriate thoughts. Male students more interested in girls than baseball conformity and bombing Amerika's "enemies", will be singled out for osrtracism and eventual death from homeless starvation. Arbeitet macht fried.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  20. Michael

    This assumes that the thoughts are clear and lucid. If our society continues declining at the rate it is now, when this technology becomes commercially available, all they will get out of us are grunts and images of meat, murder, and carnal mayhem.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • TR6

      "carnal mayhem." What a perfict name for a rock band

      November 13, 2011 at 7:20 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.