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. Science

    The truth below.

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    Gravity is not up for debate ! ............E = mc2..........(U–Pb).................two math formulas..........that do not lie or sin !!!..........

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    Hey James Madison................religion has none it looks like.............with the comments on this blog.

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    No god(s) needed or required to graduate from public schools in the US

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    No god(s) needed................... Old. DNA works..................also catches crooks !

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    For what...................... ? Make sure to read what the pope said !

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    Make sure to read comments

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    The ORIGIN story is bullsh-it...............so is the bible............... nasty !

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    BACKFILL on E =mc2.....

    Einstein letter, set for auction, shows scientist challenging idea of God, being 'chosen'

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    “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends,” Einstein wrote in German in a 1954 letter that will be auctioned on eBay later this month. "No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”


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    Cheech & Chong's History of 420


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    The fact...............the earth is to old ...........time to EVOLVE !.

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    February 16, 2013 at 7:18 am | Report abuse |


    May 5, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  2. alienated rights

    If you are reading about it in a mainstream paper, the government has already been doing it for years. I believe I am a target of this technology and it is not pleasant. It goes something like this – you get arrested – guilty or not – and they chip you so they can read your thoughts. They can already beam thoughts and many other things to anybody from space. Then if they think you are maybe possibly going to commit a crime they start screwing with you hard core.

    November 12, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  3. Kathy

    People can read my mind idk why. I'm thinking it's from something that's called ACoAS. cAN SOMEONE HELP!!!!!! Pleeeeez

    September 19, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  4. Kathy

    People can read my mind idk why. I'm thinking it's from something that's called ACoAS. cAN SOMEONE HELP!!!!!!

    September 19, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
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    May 18, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
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    April 19, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  7. Yanto

    's report nelcudid the following (unreferenced) reference, on p.57:__Valentine, Tom (1987) “Magnetics may hold key to ozone layer problems,” Magnets, 2(1) 18-26.__Without even seeing the article, it is unclear how a 1987 article about ozone layer in an (offbeat, non-scholarly) technology journal could have *anything* to do with the purported investigation of 1998-1999 papers on temperature reconstructions.__AWFUL__It turns out (H/T Michael Tobis & Anna Haynes) that Tom Valentine has written about topics mentioned below, as well as psychic surgery. He was the editor of Magnets 1988-1991, a step up from his earlier writing for the National Tattler, but not a scholarly journal. He later ran a talk show that among other things promoted the dreaded black helicopters. pWhile Wegman, Scott, and Said did this pro bono, the salaries of everybody else involved in the House were paid for by US taxpayers and we got scholarship of this quality, because NAS was unlikely to address all of Mr. Barton's concerns. [DC: Dunno why, but I had to fish this out of the spam filter. ]

    April 4, 2012 at 2:40 am |
  8. Renu

    Exactly. I think schools oushld have at least one person that is specialized in these kind of things. That if a child has certain behavioral patterns that this is a person that approaches him/her and gets him/her to open up. Completely anonymous and free of consequenses. They didn't have that at my school at least, I don't know how it is in other schools or countries. But in The Netherlands they don't pay much attention to domestic violence and childhood abuse.

    April 3, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  9. anchorite

    People are getting off topic in these comments, but on topic, I agree. We need about 5 x as many ethics classes for engineers. We are in love with technology, science fiction, anything that can be done SHOULD be done, WILL be done. We don't think about the implications, assuming in the end a net good will be done, but it won't, not without deliberate thought.

    February 27, 2012 at 12:54 am |
  10. MikeL

    is it ok to write this

    December 16, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  11. Velma Lucear

    Good write-up, I'm regular visitor of one's site, maintain up the excellent operate, and It is going to be a regular visitor for a long time.

    December 12, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
  12. trxsuspension

    Hello. everyone.
    would like to make new friends with you guys.

    November 28, 2011 at 6:12 am |
  13. Matthew

    The CIA, NSA or some other government agency has been doing this to me for years. I'm not sure exactly how it works, but I think they use satellites and perhaps microchips. I've got some of those implanted in various parts of my body. Whenever they don't like what I'm thinking, they zap me with painful electric shocks, chest pains or sudden, unexplained attacks of diarrhea or some other extremely unpleasant sensation. Unless these monsters are stopped, all human beings will be turned into microchipped, remote-controlled slaves in the New World Order. Read all about it at http://www.brussellsprout.blogspot.co​m

    November 18, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • MikeL

      i know who you ARE!!

      December 16, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  14. AGuest9

    Why is this in Belief???

    November 16, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  15. AGuest9

    Keep government out of it? Better than corporate America, who will sell your thoughts to the lowest bidder.

    November 16, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  16. Scott

    Maybe they should use this to see if that guy coach from Pen State really did molest all those children

    November 14, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • AGuest9

      After ruining the kids' lives, and several other people's careers, who cares.

      November 16, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  17. cgly

    Interesting. That road goes both ways though. Imagine if a person were running to become President wouldn't it be nice to cut through the bull and find out whats really on there mind? Perhaps we should also think about murders that have gotten off due to lack of evidence even if we knew it was them we just didn't have tangible prof. Perhaps this technology would open the gate to getting information in as well. It could open the door for the deaf to be able to hear, and the blind to see without surgery. Perhaps it is a little disturbing to think all your secrets could be revealed but the mind is to vast for someone to learn a persons secrets in the span of a few seconds. If it's used after all other options are exhausted and there is doubt of there innocents then i wouldn't mind perhaps it would set wrongly accused free? Perhaps the disabled could walk again using there mind to control an artificial limb. The possibilities are endless and the question I ask myself is do the benefits far outweigh the bad and i believe they do. As long as we use it as a last effort and not a first.

    November 14, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Bob Jones

      I see your point, but you know what scares me?

      If this becomes a proven technology (As in widely implemented), it would make things WAY too "easy". Don't know if that kid shoplifted from your store? Have the cops scan his brain. Think your ex might be cheating? Scan her brain. Wanna prove you aren't a terrorist at the airport? Then you shouldn't have a problem while we scan your brain, right?

      It's going to become far too easy and convenient to violate someone's privacy.. and if it's easy to do, you can count on it being done and exploited.

      This technology has great applications, and they are awesome and mindblowing, but the negative factors are equally "mindblowing".

      I'm against this being used by any type of authority. (Police, Government, Job) It should be purely for scientific discovery, no other use.

      November 15, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  18. Fookin' Prawn

    Time to start buying stock in aluminum foil, I guess.

    November 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Good idea!

      Ironically, I read an article once that said that aluminum foil did little to block em radiation on most of the spectrum, but the range that was impacted was used at least partially by government enti.ties and it actually increased the reception rather than blocking it, like an antenna. (probably urban myth though)

      FBI: "We weren't monitoring you, but now that you've added your own personal antenna, we might as well." lol

      November 14, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  19. I'm The Best!

    I wonder what the Christians are going to do when they prove that there isn't anything more than our body and brain i.e. no soul. Wonder what they'll make up to get around that one

    November 14, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  20. myklds

    @Central Scrutinizer

    We all surely miss you here. I wish you well on your journey and you may su.c.ce.ed on any endeavor that you get into with. But wait........can you take Tom Tom with ya, PPLLLUUUUZZZZZZZ?!!!! We all take it as a huge favor, just drop him off when you passed by timbukto.

    November 14, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Look, bozo, you have as much choice here as you do with TV. If you don't like what I write, don't read it. No one's holding a gun to your head. And you aren't qualified to speak for "everyone here", either.

      November 14, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      herbie, you should look at an atlas or a map, dumbbell. It's "Timbuktu".

      LOVE the fact that you screwed up and spammed but forgot to use your new phony handle. I should have guessed. Who else but you would be so stupid as to write: "and you may su.c. c.eed on any endeavor that you get into with"?

      Is English a second language for you?

      November 14, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • The Government

      Tom Tom, please do stick around. The Country needs more Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom Tom's.

      November 14, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, I plan to. It will annoy herbie and cause HS to babble incessantly.

      November 14, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I am so awesome. Ugh, it disgusts me to know how much better I am than all of you. I am superior to everyone. I am more educated than anyone alive. Einstein was an idiot.

      November 14, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Awww, herbie, you poor little dear. Did mommy take away your naughty magazines again?

      Is that why you need to follow me around-it's the way you get your rocks off?

      November 15, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • Bob Jones

      @Tom Tom,

      Hah hah. Can't you recognize an attempt at humor when you see one?
      I'll say the same thing to you as you did to the other.
      "Look, bozo, you have as much choice here as you do with TV. If you don't like what mykids wrote, don't read it."
      It also sounds like you're a bit of an antagonist, that could be why you aren't liked.
      Hell, I've only just read a small number of your posts and ALREADY I don't like you and wish you would go away.
      So, I think "mykids" post was pretty accurate.

      November 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Gee, Boob, uh, Bob, how WILL I survive? My red candy heart is broken. Boo hoo hoo.

      November 15, 2011 at 8:16 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.