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. DanTheMan

    All said and done though, I doubt if they could come up with a better mind reading technology than Facebook and
    Twitter. Highly accurate.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  2. Brutus2011

    1984, coming soon

    November 13, 2011 at 6:43 am |
    • Brendalove

      You got that right....except in 1984, they at least had their thoughts. People had to be brutally brainwashed to change their minds.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:46 am |
    • Mirosal

      But in the book, and the movie, they sure knew how to party didn't they? lol

      November 13, 2011 at 6:47 am |
  3. OhhPinnYunn

    If the government were to read our minds, they would then finally know what we REALLY think about them and how infrequent we think about them at all.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:42 am |
  4. Brendalove

    Well, they better get ready, because the biggest jumble of thoughts ever known to man is coming their way

    November 13, 2011 at 6:42 am |

    Hasn't this been covered in a movie?

    November 13, 2011 at 6:38 am |
    • escher7

      Science fiction often comes true. Who would have believed in 1940 that robot -planes would be controlled from home and kill in other countries, or that we would carry a small phone that could connect to the whole world and to a data base of endless information?

      November 13, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  6. darin

    Would hate for someone to know about my secret thoughts of June Cleaver,

    November 13, 2011 at 6:36 am |

      She was hawt......

      November 13, 2011 at 6:38 am |
    • Mirosal

      Hey now... THERE'S a milf lol ... what was the dirtiest thing ever said on TV? ... "Ward, weren't you a little hard on the 'beaver' last night?" 🙂

      November 13, 2011 at 6:40 am |

      ....sigh.....now how did we turn Leave It To Beaver into something like this? I think we'll pay when we see Saint Peter.....

      November 13, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  7. Zaphod2011

    What a great idea. I would love to know why older teapublikans continue to vote for the same people who are hell bent in taking away their social security, medicare and medicaid.
    What a great study that would be

    November 13, 2011 at 6:35 am |
  8. Loxyred

    This. Is. SCARY! Stay outta of my head! No longer can they claim voices in your head are proof of insanity. Thanks to our Government. A little contradiction eh?

    November 13, 2011 at 6:35 am |
  9. JayT

    Coming soon to a TSA checkpoint near you...

    November 13, 2011 at 6:31 am |
  10. CarolSong

    Yawn? Read this thought in my brain. What a pathetic article. Who edits this stuff?

    November 13, 2011 at 6:29 am |
  11. MikeL

    I know this sounds strange and not possible. But it is true....I read the forst few lines of this articel but could stand to read anymore, it is a LIE!!!!!!!. science can already read pure complcated thought. And as far as inserting thing into the a persons mind then this also has already been done.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:24 am |
    • Mirosal

      ok, when was this done, who did it, and what are your sources?

      November 13, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • MikeL

      started in 1978 at least. Daarpa with gov help. I heard it when I was up in Danbuey, CT.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:33 am |
    • Mirosal

      Darpa?? you do know that DARPA was the first ones to use an "internet". They sent out the first e-mail back in 1969, and the system promptly crashed loL .. DARPA isn't a science lab, it's gov't computer programming and data entry for the DoD.. bunch of computer geeks

      November 13, 2011 at 6:36 am |
    • DanTheMan

      This is its beginning of introduction of the benefits of the technology so that it may be lobbied for and presented to the public for acceptance.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:42 am |
  12. Joey

    I would love that. I would love to read the thoughts of everyone in my school so I can easily find out which girl likes me.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:23 am |
    • escher7

      Right. And she will read hoe many times you pull your wire thinking about her.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:32 am |
  13. Anon

    Sounds like a paranoid fantasy.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:20 am |
    • escher7

      And the government can't kill people in Afghanistan by remote control from the U.S.A. Closing your eyes is what they hope you will do. Technology is the biggest threat to freedom, bigger than the nuclear weapon stock, bigger than terrorist plots. The future is phucked and I do not see any way to stop it. Matrix, Terminator – here we come.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:36 am |
  14. Richard Park

    Don't you people have anything to write about other than trash like this? Don't give our worthless (at this time and maybe in the future if we don't wake up) government any ideas!!!!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 6:18 am |
    • escher7

      They already have all the ideas they need.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:37 am |
  15. DanTheMan

    Just like the internet opened up a whole slew of cyber crimes that an individual can be charged with so will this open up the enlightened age of the thought criminal. Will courts order us not to think certain thoughts? Will we have to wear portable devices that apply an electric shock if they detect unlawful thoughts? The way things are going this world doesn’t need human beings, it needs a ruling class with machines to perform their every command. With machines you always know what they are doing, where they are and what they are thinking.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:15 am |
  16. Rick1948

    Shouldn't be a problem for the Republicans – nothing to read.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:14 am |
  17. patthemick

    What about the ability to insert thoughts into one mind? If we can get anti social criminals to stop being criminals that would be a good thing but what if we could get a populace to accept tyranny? What if we could use the system to steal industrial and military secrets? This opens a hosts of problems.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:14 am |
  18. Cadiz

    It sounds like some interesting research. Maybe if we would just try to be more truthful with each other we wouldn't need to fear someone else knowing we were lying.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:13 am |
  19. MikeL

    I know for a fact that they have been reading Minds at least since 1978. If anyone does think that this is going on today in piblic. just come to Danbury CT. You can hear live and see live and in person. What's even better than that you can see the people that they are doing this to!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 6:11 am |
  20. MikeL

    I already know that the gov can and are reading people's minds.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:07 am |
    • Mirosal

      Did the aliens tell you that when they appeared above your double-wide, beamed you up and put probes in your an.us?

      November 13, 2011 at 6:12 am |
    • MikeL

      No. But I did find this out when I was in Danbury, CT. Just to let you know if dont beleve me just go there your self and if you have any friends in the area tell them to go and they will let you know what I have said so far is true!!!!!!

      November 13, 2011 at 6:27 am |
    • MikeL

      Do I know you Mirosal. I think I may have heard of you.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:29 am |
    • Mirosal

      So what super top-secret facility is in Danbury CT? Other than the Danbury Mint, and the stage of the Jerry Springer show?

      November 13, 2011 at 6:33 am |
    • tellyou1nce

      Mirosal @ you're reading my mind... hahaha

      November 13, 2011 at 6:33 am |
    • MikeL

      No, No I mean this is not happening in a lab or bunker. This happening in public agenst the persons will. Like I said before all you have to do is go to DANBURY, CT 06810 AND SEE AND HEAR FOR YOUR SELF. I have to write about what is going so for now that is all I will be saying to you at this time.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:37 am |
    • escher7

      The threat is real, but if you don't want us to think you are a paranoid delusional, tell us how and why this is happening. I once had a client who walked into my office and immediately ran out screaming because my secretary's computer was reading her mind.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:42 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @MikeL: You are kidding...right? You can't be stupid enough to believe this seriously!! Do you also believe that god is real or that 9/11 was a set-up?

      November 13, 2011 at 6:56 am |
    • Mirosal

      @ Truth Prevails ... good morning m'lady 🙂 .. don't worry about MikeL ... he's probably in Danbury, CT becaue he'll be on Jerry Springer 1st thing Monday morning lol (that's where it's taped)

      November 13, 2011 at 6:59 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Who needs to worry about mind reading machines. I have this tiny green alien buddy named The Great Gazoo who pops into the future to find out what's going to happen then comes back to tell me all about it. Comes in handy to warn me about any pesky mind reading attempts.

      November 13, 2011 at 7:04 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Mirosal: And a pleasant Sunday to you 🙂 Jerry Springer...you mean where the freaks of nature go to legally beat on each other and tell the world how horrible their partners are?

      Hey, did you happen to see the fact that the pope is condoning the s.e.x abuse garbage? On the last article on page 40, I posted the link...interesting read but of course the supporters of the church of pedo.philes came out to play.

      November 13, 2011 at 7:05 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @AtheistSteve: I was wondering where MY Gazoo got to this morning...time to send him back to me...no wonder I had to make my own coffee...damn you man!!

      November 13, 2011 at 7:06 am |
    • Mirosal

      Yeah ... the Pope ... there's a man's man lol the 80 year old virgin lol .. Once in the Hitler Youth swearing undying loyalty to that person, now leader over the "souls" of a billion people who are afraid that if they don't do what HE wants, they'll get punished forever ... not too far from Herr Hitler now is it? I think your Gazoo had to go back in time for a bit because Bamm-Bamm needed a new weight set and Fred needed new feet .. I mean new brakes for his car lol

      November 13, 2011 at 7:18 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.