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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. tad pole

    As someone with experience in fMRI and brain imagry, I am not concerned at all. What is happening in research is interesting, but still a long way from "reading people's minds". The studies cited above have more to die with being able to corrolate certain brain activity to certain visual stimuli than actually reading thoughts.

    November 14, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  2. Chase

    Well you make it seem as though they can read your mind walking down the street. Maybe in the future, but for now they have to sit you at a brain imaging station take time and lengthy procedures just to be half sure that you are thinking of a word. Write an article when they figure out how to do it without scanning your brain.

    November 14, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  3. sortakinda

    In Gulliver's Travels, Swift reported on one govrenment that analyzed stools, as a means of identifying potential assassins. I am surprised that DHS has not begun THAT process at airports. All it would mean is a second Baggie.

    November 14, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • Bill

      The jump from requiring urine samples to requiring stool samples is a very short one. The legal/ethical part of it has already been decided.

      November 14, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  4. Unknown1001

    O.O Mind reading. It definitely abuses our individual privacy...if government can read our minds, then they'd know every single thing we're thinking of, correct? What if we don't want them to? I don't really want these people to come storming into my house and take a brain scan. If we allowed them to, then all the secrets and everything like that, even from the ones that were innocent, will be given away. No support from me, even though I see why people do support. But I believe mind reading isn't the way to go.

    On the other hand, I'd like to see someone predict what I'm thinking correctly...at school these kids always go, "I can read your mind." And, of course, they can't. -_-'

    Humph.

    November 14, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  5. Matt

    Of course the government should read minds. I can't imagine how that could possibly turn out badly.

    November 14, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • BigGov

      I knew you'd say that

      November 14, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  6. Bill

    We have the right wing of the Supreme Court to thank for the human body being subjugated to the whims of technology.

    November 14, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  7. I'm The Best!

    This is actually really cool and interesting tech. As long as the government doesn't start arresting people for thinking about doing something without any other proof (thought crimes if you will) then I say go ahead and read my mind and everyone else's.

    November 14, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  8. stubbycat

    Mind-reading isn't anything new. It is a spiritual quality of immortal Mind reflected by man. Brain is not the true center of intelligence. The universe manifests divine intelligence. As mankind improves, spiritual mind-reading will be a common and blessed activity among individuals. Since all is Mind anyway, even ignorant mortals display this capacity to some extent. The scientific man Christ Jesus was a prolific mind-reader. Human science can learn much from him,

    November 14, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • Mirosal

      Are you now going to tell us that your bible should be used as a history AND science textbook?????

      November 14, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • John Richardson

      Human science has absolutely nothing to learn from Jesus.

      November 14, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  9. jim

    I'd be satisfied if they would read their own legislative bills before voting on them.

    November 14, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • pxstorm

      I don't need to bran scanner to detect all the wishful thinking in that statement.

      November 14, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  10. cyberhackster

    Nothing to read in this country - Bunch of Lemming Sheeple – Look who is in office - Look who put him there – Mindless drones with only one thought - "Where's my welfare check?"

    November 14, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • jim

      If you get a job, you won't be so bitter.

      November 14, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  11. TG

    I'd like my gov't to read mine – it might learn something useful.

    November 14, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • PB

      Write your congressman.

      November 14, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  12. MartinT

    I see all the conspiracy theorists came out of their hidie holes over this one. I hope the government IS reading my mind on most topics; but I warn them they better have a filter on their readers. I'm just saying........

    November 14, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • Mirosal

      Yea, I'm waiting for the black helicopters to hunt me down and for the secret alien craft to take off from Area 51 lol

      November 14, 2011 at 7:28 am |
  13. Crane

    It is not necessary to read our minds. We blabber thoughtlessly on dozens of forums and get our machine address being logged together with our erratic mind burps in a practical text format, for analysis by our own as well as foreign governments and companies.

    November 14, 2011 at 6:58 am |
  14. Byrd

    Did you really think the government learned nothing from all those years of study during the the '50s – '70s? There are people in our government who can read ours minds with relative ease. The good part: Their minds are as much an open book as ours, if you know how to pick up on the signals.

    November 14, 2011 at 6:43 am |
  15. Antidjinn

    When the government starts treating minds like hardrives, I will be more concerned about their ability to write than to read.

    November 14, 2011 at 6:33 am |
  16. Merlin

    The government needs to focus on budget control and spending wisdom rather than how to manipulate the masses. As I see it, there are at least three times as many people at the local interstate intersections looking for handouts than there were 10 years ago. That's the kind of problems we need to be solving right now, not wasting money on useless campaigning. I wonder how many jobs all this campaign money could have provided...

    November 14, 2011 at 6:06 am |
  17. gliese42

    I still believe western democratic governments will assure us of our rights unless they believed you are a terrorist but what worries me is how does third world leaders, religious bigot leaders and military rulers will do with such technology.

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

      ahahah, good one 😀
      i just hope you are joking. please do some research on testing biological and chemical weapons over U.K. and US during years 1960-1990 and please realise that michael jackson was pretty right "they don't care about us"

      November 14, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • TR6

      Adds a whole new twist to Boy George’s “church of the poisoned mind”

      November 14, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  18. Passive Aggresive

    Response 864

    November 14, 2011 at 5:31 am |
  19. Kevin

    CNN nazis are censoring my posts.
    I have degrees in computer science and aerospace engineering, and wrote a book on epistemology, and am an expert in the neural basis of human reasoning, as an artificial intelligence scientist who founded a firm which grew to more than 30 employees that IBM offered to buy.
    There are only about 10 types of neural cells in the human brain, and are similar across all species. Squids probably think more capably than most Americans.

    November 14, 2011 at 5:30 am |
    • Mirosal

      "Squids probably think more capably than most Americans." Given the current poltical landscape, You might .. MIGHT have a point there. So what is the name of this book you've written?

      November 14, 2011 at 5:37 am |
    • Unknown

      You are very right but let me enlighten you on something the U.S. is going down the same path that nazi Germany is going when Hitler rose to power and now we the citizens are in the same position as the German citizens are the question is will we attempt to try to stop or not. "Those that don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it"

      November 14, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • Fookin' Prawn

      You have all that education, but you're not smart enough to get around a filter 'bot on a CNN forum?

      November 14, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  20. Peter

    Afraid to say it... but to late. Govt. probably cant guess what words were thinking now, but they can pretty much sway the tide in our thought through news like CNN, FOX, and the very few other major news organizations that a majority of Americans consume their worthless information from. Bravo for keeping the real news out of our lives, and I look forward to all the other dirt that gets distributed concerning politics, ethics, etc. instead of real issues that promote real solutions. Special thanks to everyone reading this not believing a word I say. That means the American system cranked out another homemade machine.

    November 14, 2011 at 5:22 am |
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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.