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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. Doctor Strangelove

    I will allow that kind of intrusion into people's minds. That is between them and their GOD[s].

    November 14, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • Doctor Strangelove

      I made a clerical error and meant to say "I will not allow that kind of intrusion."

      November 14, 2011 at 12:42 am |
  2. Doctor Strangelove

    I am GOD's Marine Guard sent in order to prevent that kind of intrusion on people's privacies. I am the only authorized by GOD to read minds Telepathically.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:39 am |
  3. Been There Done That

    Put on your tin foil hats folks.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:33 am |
  4. voiceOFreality

    Courts don't even let lie detector results be evidence, so why would anyone think that this technology would be?

    November 14, 2011 at 12:20 am |
  5. Christopher

    Technology is nowhere near being able to read someone's mind. It's asinine for a story like this to exist on a major news site.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:19 am |
  6. Elizabeth

    What he is describing isn't new at all. These are the tricks of the trade of the "cold read" that stage magic uses. They give a speech, and people literally spell out their troubles with nervous ticks at certain letters; it wouldn't be hard at all to do the same "cold read" with brain scans. No, it doesn't make me nervous; but what does make me nervous is the people who believe that this is truly "mind reading." It is only reacting to things in such a way that information is revealed. What do you think that a lie-detector test is doing, anyway? It isn't just the needle jumping that is being read.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:18 am |
  7. Observer

    There are already many delusional Christians who think they can read the minds of gays and claim that gays are lying.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  8. Joel

    The Dream Police are coming to get me!

    Hide WInston, the thought police are here. Double think bad!

    November 14, 2011 at 12:13 am |
  9. Terry Brookman

    I wish they could, then they could see the true contempt I have for them and why.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  10. Brian

    Double-plus bad.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:08 am |
  11. stacell72

    Only if we are allowed to read theirs!!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
  12. Robert Kent

    Here come the thought police.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • Mike...

      They are already doing it! Despite my tin foil hat! I feel my medulla oblongata itching as I type!!!

      November 13, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • C.K.

      I WAS THINKING THE EXACT SAME THING DURING THIS ARTICLE!!!!!!!!!!

      November 14, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • ricer23901

      I agree, a little to 1984 for me...

      November 14, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  13. Jeepers

    You know what keeps them from being able to read your mind? Tin foil hats.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
    • Jimtanker

      Too bad that they dont make tin foil anymore isn't it?

      November 14, 2011 at 12:18 am |
  14. Soleilmavis

    Mind control technologies are weapons which use drugs, electronic microchip implants, nanotechnologies, microwaves and /or electromagnetic waves to subvert an individual's sense of control over their own thinking, behavior, emotions or decision making by attacking the brain and nervous system.
    http://peacepink.ning.com/forum/topics/introduce-mind-control-and

    Stories about Soleilmavis Liu

    Judyth Piazza interviews Soleilmavis Liu About Mind Control Technologies
    (http://thesop.org/story/20111010/judyth-piazza-interviews-soleilmavis-sol-about-mind-control-technologies.html )

    Soleilmavis Liu fights against mind control weapons
    written by Sofia Smith on 22 Oct 2011
    http://www.webgovernments.com/blogs/164/blogdetail/

    Kidnapped by Mind Control Weapons, and Sent to US Embassy in Hong Kong
    (http://peacepink.ning.com/profiles/blogs/kidnapped-by-mind-control )

    November 13, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  15. THX 1138

    If you have not been thinking evil or wrong thoughts then you have nothing to hide.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
    • BK

      Honestly? Spoken like someone that is trying to play it off because they have something to hide.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
    • Nicole

      It doesn't matter...they are still your own private thoughts. Your thoughts in my opinion are the one thing that people can't take away from you...those are private and this type of technology can be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
    • Miss Demeanor

      I'll pass on your version of the future. To paraphrase our founders : if you're willing to give up rights for security, you don't deserve either one. I can't wait for your cult to have a 'religious purity' test once they get their claws on this technology.

      November 14, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • Chantal

      How is it possible to just not think thoughts that most people would consider wrong or evil? I don't know about you, but my thoughts just occur in relation to some stimulus. I can control my reactions to my thoughts (to a point), but I have very little control over my actual thoughts.

      November 14, 2011 at 12:17 am |
  16. Tadesse

    If it can be done, it will be done, the moralization notwithstanding. Period.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
  17. Bart Fargo

    Have you ever considered any real freedoms? Freedom from the opinions of others...even the opinions of yourself?

    November 13, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  18. Catherine

    Everyone, think happy thoughts about celery!

    November 13, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  19. Larry

    They should only read the minds of prospective Presidential candidates (sure would've saved alot of time with the President we have now...) and members of Congress - routine spot checks for them would be a great idea!

    November 13, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  20. Higher Cognition

    This is such a crock! The author is EXTREMELY stretching what you can do with fMRI, not to mention thinking that the courts could order this. Take off your tin foil hats everyone!

    November 13, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
    • BK

      He's not stretching what you CAN do, he's saying that is extremely limited. It sounds like you didn't actually read the article.

      All he's saying is that IF we can ever read minds, they shouldn't be allowed to. That's a rather reasonable opinion.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:16 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.