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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. Kevin

    Mirosal,
    Read from one of the researchers at http://bioscience.jbpub.com/cells/Exp131.aspx, or from http://psych.athabascau.ca/html/Psych289/Biotutorials/2/part1.shtml where it states:
    "Studies of this phenomenon in the 1930's using "giant" squid axons measured the electrochemical changes that underlie this neuronal impulse and propagation or transmission of the signal. The charges both inside and outside the cell membrane were recorded using an oscilloscope, an instrument that uses a fluorescent screen to display a visual representation of electrical variations. The swimming mechanism of the squid (an aquatic animal found in the Atlantic Ocean) consists of an enlarged tubular structure or giant axon that is several times larger than the biggest human axon. The large size of the squid axon allowed for easier insertion of the recording electrodes of the oscilloscope. Neuroscience now has the micro-technology to measure directly from microscopic elements of the human neuron. A commonly used microelectrode is made of glass tube that is tapered to a tip diameter of 0.0005 millimeters or less and filled with a solution of a current conducting salt such as potassium chloride."

    November 14, 2011 at 5:05 am |
    • Mirosal

      I know what an O-scope is, I can build one for you from scratch. All that article said was that they stimulated a nerve ending .... so what ... big deal .... hell electro-shock therapy was ALL the rage back then. Besides, a squid cannot think or reason. Like any other invertebrate, it is an instictual creature. No thoughts were read there, only a nerve ending was stimulated.

      November 14, 2011 at 5:13 am |
    • MikeL

      Mirosal is a government agent. She will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. You know I know who you are Woman!!!!!!!

      June 25, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  2. Kevin

    Bunch of CNN censors will not let me post!

    November 14, 2011 at 5:04 am |
  3. PhooBar

    Yes, this is a real technology, that is still in it's early R&D phase.
    Let's spin it out a little further.

    Now that this information has been made public, expect large amounts of government and corporate funding for research.
    – Also expect that you will no longer read/hear much about it, other than occasional rumors.

    Just for a paranoid fantasy, apply Moore's law to the situation and figure that you have (maybe) four to six years of privacy left. The brain is just a meat computer, after all.

    – To further spin your top... Once you can read what's on someone's mind, how long will it be until the technology exists to download thoughts? With or without you knowing about it?

    If you think that this is just an exercise in science fiction, allow me to add something from one of the great science fiction writers, Dr. Authur C. Clarke:

    Clarke's Three Laws, are three "laws" of prediction formulated by the British writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke. They are:

    1. When a distinguished scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is amost certainly wrong.

    2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

    3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    Another science-fiction writer (I forget his name) thought about this decades ago, and envisioned a wig / toupee with a Faraday mesh cage built into it, to stop others from listening in on your thoughts. Literally, 'a tinfoil hat'.

    Welcome to a Brave New World, indeed.

    November 14, 2011 at 4:47 am |
  4. Kme

    Very sadly, there will be more presidents like Bush and Obama who put public safety and national security fears ahead of all decency, laws, rules, privacy, or fairness, and the world will become an even more dark place with these mind diggers.

    November 14, 2011 at 4:26 am |
  5. flarnkingsgargle

    The government could try to read our minds, but these days there's not much to look into.

    November 14, 2011 at 4:24 am |
  6. Kevin

    The US government already can read minds, with technology that has been operational since the early 1980s. This article is disinformation.
    In the mid-1930s, scientists discovered that by establishing an electric potential across a neural cell membrane, the neural cell could be caused to 'fire'. An electric potential can be established at any orientation in 3-d space with electromagnetic fields–it is very straightforward. The governments have been working on this classified technology since for more than 80 years.
    The neural technology has been used to kill tens of thousands of liberty advocates in the US. It has affected a political purge, by either murder or financial ruin. The US government is criminal. They had the weapon during the 9-11 attacks, so draw your own conclusions.
    The neural weapon can fire all kinds of neural cells–those that cause expression of emotion, those which lie between the mechanisms of the ear and the brain (thus enabling communication of 'sounds'), and can force people to take actions against their will. They can drive you off the road and into a tree.
    I know these things because the US government has been talking to me through this 2-bit cell phone for more than 20 years. They torture, harass, and otherwise trash my life. I asked for help from a foreign government 20 years ago, and have lived outside the US most of that time. But I still can not get these criminal governments out of my head. They are a bunch of Charles Mansons, and American people should wake up. The best advice is to get out of your police state, life is better elsewhere.
    The US is an increasingly communist state because of the use of the weapon for political purposes. The US is not a democracy–the weapon can pre-approve political leaders, and control those in office.
    You all have been nuked by a neural weapon, and it is a huge disgrace.

    November 14, 2011 at 4:06 am |
    • Mirosal

      Since the 1930's you say? Just for the sake of argument, exactly what kind of technology was available for use in the 1930's? hmmm??

      November 14, 2011 at 4:10 am |
    • blake

      fu$k you kevin your out of your fu$king mind. Hippy!

      November 14, 2011 at 4:20 am |
    • Kevin

      They used the giant neural cells from Atlantic squids. For arguments sake, they had electricity back then, stupid.

      They set up wires on either side of the neural membrane, and made a potential difference in the wires (one with one voltage, the other with another), and a signal was sent through the axon.

      November 14, 2011 at 4:22 am |
    • Kevin

      The same to you, Blake, and you are a lying piece of dog waste.

      November 14, 2011 at 4:23 am |
    • Kme

      Then why haven't they gotten me to pay any federal taxes for 18 years?

      November 14, 2011 at 4:28 am |
    • Mirosal

      The only readings they could have possibly gotten from that would have been from a voltmeter, and it wasn't hand-held back then. Vacuum tubes were the forefront of technology. Radio was just starting its "golden age", talking movies were still new. TV was still in the laboratory. Radar was 10 years away. Just HOW did they keep that giant cell alive for the process anyway?

      November 14, 2011 at 4:39 am |
    • John Richardson

      Hey, lay off Kevin. He's done advanced work on the power of tin foil hats on mental processes!

      November 14, 2011 at 4:47 am |
    • PhooBar

      Waiter! This man needs more tinfoil...

      November 14, 2011 at 4:53 am |
    • Mirosal

      Yea, I'm sure he got his expert fisherman's license ... oops i mean Master Baiter's degree from Bellevue Hospi ... I mean University lol

      November 14, 2011 at 4:57 am |
    • George

      Hey Kevin, ever considered of writing your memoirs? I am interested in publishing them, please let me know!

      November 14, 2011 at 5:33 am |
    • Kevin

      George, please provide a web link and we can discuss. rgds, Kevin

      November 14, 2011 at 6:21 am |
  7. C

    How sad that somebody with a Ph.D would write such a dumb article. To suggest such a preposterous scenario like "we are peering into the labyrinth of the mind and pulling out information," and that "the right to keep my innermost thoughts safe from the prying eyes" makes it seem like Neurologist can read the thoughts of neurons. Some of the research presented is not surprising at all, for example the same way that thinking about a stressful event will increase your heart rate, release cortisol, vasopressin, and other stress related hormones as well as increase sympathetic NS activity, thinking about moving your hand will activate your primary motor cortex. And how different parts of your brain are activated when stimulated by different words is not a breakthrough discovery, but has been known for some years. The current research is nowhere as advance as he would like you to think, and wont be for a long time, perhaps never at all. My point is, Wolpe wanted to get his name on some pop article, and he did just that, but made an idiot of himself and lost credibility as an academic and writer, because what he is talking about in this article, is not even an issue.

    November 14, 2011 at 3:44 am |
    • Jarno

      I agree with you C – we are about as far away from being able to "read minds" in any meaningful way that would impact our right to privacy, as early hunter gatherers were from creating the Interent.

      What limited determinations of a person's thoughts researchers are able to do now can only be done under very, very specific experimental conditions, and when they know ahead of time that what the person will be thinking about is one of a limited set of things. It's not even known whether it is THEORETICALLY possible to read a person's thoughts at any appreciable distance, without hooking him up to all sorts of sensors and machinery.

      It is interesting research, for sure, but we are a long ways off from a situation where we'd have to start considering the ethical implications of mind-reading.

      November 14, 2011 at 3:55 am |
    • Kevin

      C and Jarno,
      You are both pseudo-skeptics. Because either of you do not have knowledge in some area, you assume it is not possible. Either that or you do have knowledge and you are both liars.
      The human brain is an electrochemical network. _Of course_ it is possible to interpret thoughts and affect behaviors with electromagnetic signals! It's electric! Only an idiot or a criminal would deny it.

      Jarno states that "It's not even known whether it is THEORETICALLY possible to read a person's thoughts at any appreciable distance". What a joke. Electrical signals are transmitted between neural cells in the mind. Obviously there is a method of interpreting the thoughts, because we do it.

      My gut feelings is these two are charlatans. They both know of the weapon and are lying through their teeth to spread confusion and disinformation. They are both scam artists and ought to be exposed as the most rotten kind of people.

      November 14, 2011 at 4:16 am |
    • Keith

      I respectfully disagree. You sound like someone who knows what he's talking about, but you also sounded like someone who thinks more like a scientist than a lawyer.

      Once they become near-100% trustworthy, simple tests that can already be done can have as significant impact as DNA testing. For example, I remember reading about an fMRI study being able to tell whether the subject is seeing a particular object or person for the first time. Make that test as reliable as DNA testing and you'll see defense attorneys trying to get those studies admitted as evidence almost immediately. Once they're admitted, DA's will want to use them as State's evidence, and eventually SCOTUS will have to rule on whether one can be required to give testimony inside an fMRI.

      And that's all from one little test. I've heard about several others over the years that had me immediately thinking of their legal ramifications. It doesn't take something as complex as a brainscan-based lie detector or thought transcriber to get into territory most people will consider "mind reading".

      November 14, 2011 at 5:33 am |
  8. Yirmi

    Should the privacy be absolute?
    If a terrorist leader is captured, should we be able to read the terrorist leader's mind in order to prevent loss of human life?

    November 14, 2011 at 3:38 am |
    • John Richardson

      I think we better take you down to the station, just in case.

      November 14, 2011 at 4:49 am |
  9. RightTurnClyde

    Back in the middle ages the monarch could find out what someone was thinking by (a) t.o.r.t.u.r.e or (b) asking the priest what was said in c.o.n.f.e.s.s.i.o.n. .. In N. America (before the revolution) government was mostly limited to townships (road building) and burgesses (financing state functions) .. but the monarch could still use the two methods and then try colonists in the Star Chamber. So our cons.t.i.t.u.t.i.o.n. guaranteed ten freedoms but the current president and the judiciary no longer believe in those freedoms so they are a mere formality. The now have many camps for prolonged detention where they can apply the first to methods and then have a Star Chamber.

    November 14, 2011 at 3:32 am |
    • John Richardson

      @RTC More Republican disinformation. Who was is who made "enhanced interrogation techniques" national policy? Who was it who banned those practices?

      November 14, 2011 at 4:50 am |
  10. ultimate thinker

    Wish we had this to use on Occupiers now.

    November 14, 2011 at 3:32 am |
  11. Dan

    It's time to put on the tin foil hat.

    November 14, 2011 at 3:17 am |
    • PhooBar

      Damnit Dan, you beat me to it.

      November 14, 2011 at 4:05 am |
  12. kung fu toa clan

    i think so much time and money spend on the mind reading and making a new tech to control and kill we spend the money to make things right making hospital more school and making medical and social benefit for people they are in need make afford to end the Aids and making friend with every one around the word and having opening mind and ear to other idea even we don't like it.

    November 14, 2011 at 3:08 am |
  13. monogopapenog

    Soon one will be able to purchase a mind reading machine from Wal-Mart. Then all one has to do is convince the subject to undergo the imaging, deduce the results and predict the future.

    November 14, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  14. Jerry Swanson

    If this becomes reality could an accused person not request it to prove their innocence. I think I read about this several years ago and the image of a crime scene will be recognized and can't be hidden by an actual person that committed a crime and the falsely accused will not respond to a crime scene. Might help you if you are the falsely accused.

    November 14, 2011 at 1:51 am |
  15. J.

    They're already reading our thoughts. It's called the internet.

    November 14, 2011 at 1:37 am |
  16. power4things

    Governments keep their own counsel on what is who's "business" ... if you think the absense of action keeps you clean, look again. George Orwell was only limited by imagination ... find that desert island and move – today!

    November 14, 2011 at 12:59 am |
  17. Tor

    All Double-Think is considered Strict Treason and a direct threat against the Government.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:57 am |
  18. CorporateHate

    I think Scientists should spend their time on creating 'Scanners'. reference on youtube...you'll love these guys!

    November 14, 2011 at 12:54 am |
  19. CorporateHate

    Just another form of control. It's probably already out there. Good for terrorists and catching the bad guys..but where do we draw the line?

    You can't! But obviously, the nerdy government officials being told by some higher leader (Congress?) to read minds so that they can tell who loves Democrats and Rebublicans...that's all really! lol

    November 14, 2011 at 12:53 am |
  20. Kim

    People who have never seen The Minority Report should rent it, it's an older movie with Tom Cruise. It's more or less about what horrible things can happen when the government can read your mind and know the future as well. Every person thinks bad thoughts from time to time and it's no one's business, the point being that thinking a thought is powerless, what counts is whether or not a person acts on those thoughts. I'm not one of those people who believes that thoughts have power, if they did, I'd be rich and beautiful. I've been day dreaming that for decades to no avail. LOL!

    November 14, 2011 at 12:45 am |
    • @ Kim

      Send me a pic please .. I'll tell you 🙂 personally, I prefer shorter BBW's

      November 14, 2011 at 3:12 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.